Friday, October 21, 2016

The 2016 Al Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner

Here are two New Yorkers, the two major party nominees for president in 2016, at the annual Al Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. This clip tells you everything about this surreal election campaign. It's wacky and historic at the same time.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: "The Front Page"

It's hard to believe but there used to be very few outlets for people to get the news. No Internet. No blogs. No social media. No cable. Radio and television beamed news reports into people's homes and cars but, if you really wanted to know what was going on in the world, if you wanted to "deep-dive" into the complexities of the world you lived in, then you needed to read a newspaper. Yes, read. Read paper. With words on it. Carefully written words backed up by reporting and facts. Written by reporters. Professional reporters. Interesting concept, no?

The world of newspaper reporting is a romantic one -- think movies like His Girl Friday, All the President's Men, and last year's Oscar-winner Spotlight. Newspapers were places where hard-boiled types (usually men) wearing hats and ties quickly pounded out stories on a typewriter, trying to make that midnight deadline, stories that would speak truth to power and reveal all the rot beneath the surface of respectable society. Increasingly newspapers are disappearing as the economic foundation for them melts away. Back in the day, however, newspapers were powerful and profitable. They broke news and made news. And perhaps no play better captured the fevered world of newspapers than the 1928 play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. 

Currently playing in a popular revival on Broadway, The Front Page is one part a newspaper romance, another part a thriller. It's set in Chicago in 1928, the night before a Communist-sympathizer accused of killing a black cop is set to be executed. As the plot unfolds, a conspiracy involving politics and the miscarriage of justice is revealed along with the personality conflicts and divided loyalties of the reporters covering the story. Believe it or not, it's a comedy, a mystery, and a love letter to newspapers rolled into one. It's fun. I shan't go into great detail about the plot (it's complex) but, if you want to know more, go here

This production technically does not open until October 20th but I recently caught a preview of The Front Page. It has, in short, an amazing cast: Nathan Lane, John Slattery, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Sherie Renee Scott, the legendary Robert Morse, and many fine others. It's an orgy of talent and everyone in the cast plays their parts to the hilt. The play itself is quite amusing if not always laugh at loud funny but the characters are well-defined and compelling. The plot itself is basically an excuse to play out the wacky interactions of the different characters and it mostly works. However, given that what I saw was a preview and therefore an early rough draft of the production, the timing of the play felt somewhat off, somewhat forced. It was clear, to me at least, that the actors were getting used to playing their roles.

That said, when Nathan Lane finally arrives about half-way into the play, it becomes a different show. It becomes fast and funny. It becomes the kind of screwball comedy you were expecting. As the swaggering, outrageous owner of a Chicago tabloid, Lane goes full bore into his character, tearing up the stage with his big personality and perfect timing. The rest of the cast does its best. John Slattery, better known as Roger from Mad Men, is wonderful and John Goodman is lovable even though he's playing a bad guy. I love the actor Jefferson Mays who plays a snooty reporter (I've seen him in I Am My Own Wife and Journey's End) and I just wish that he had a bigger part but he's always fascinating to watch on stage. I'm also glad to have finally seen Sherie Renee Scott on stage but, like Mays, I wish she had more to do. However, it really is a great cast and worth seeing.

So I recommend The Front Page if you love comedy, newspapers, the 1920s, and Nathan Lane. It's a paeab to a lost world.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Bob Dylan in NYC

Newly-minted Nobel laureate Bob Dylan -- the first American to win the literature prize in more than two decades and the first member of a super-group to be so honored -- was born and raised in Minnesota. But it was here in NYC, Greenwich Village 1961 specifically, where Dylan's genius first revealed itself to the world.

Working the downtown clubs, singing in venues all over town, Dylan's brilliant songs and lyrics caught fire with a new generation that had just elected its first president born in the 20th century, a spiritually hungry generation that had survived the worst war in history and the conservative era of the 1950s. 

For the next fifty-plus years, Dylan would become more than just a popular singer/songwriter -- his music and lyrics would become part of the American conscious for late-20th/early-21st century, a communal reference point for the existential dilemma of a nation of plenty and a nation of tumult. Dylan didn't give us easy answers -- or any answers at all. Instead he asked us questions, hard questions, and dared us to be brave enough to answer them for ourselves.

"How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone"

Questioning, searching, longing, yearning, giving in, giving up, hoping, hating, loving, wondering -- it's all there in Dylan's lyrics, the jumble of emotions and thoughts, the emotive and repressed feelings that we all have at the same time, in various shades, in various ways. And it's precisely because it's so hard to express them that Dylan -- through his poetic voice -- expressed them for us in language both economical and powerful, haunting and familiar. He took the complicated frustrations of this complicated nation and made them clear:

 Come senators, congressmen please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside and it's ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a' changin'!

If you're interested in the early days of Dylan, you must read this recent New York Times article but you should also read Dave Van Ronk's great book The Mayor of MacDougal Street about the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene that Dylan emerged from. (Van Ronk was a friend of Dylan's and an early influence -- and Van Ronk is immortalized in the great Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis that takes place in January 1961 right as Dylan emerges.) 

And if anyone out there doubts that Mr. Dylan should have won this prize, just remember that he's the guy who wrote: 

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind

Thursday, October 13, 2016

To Live and Eat in NYC

Walk down any street in our fair city and you'll find food options a plenty. Chinese, Indian, Italian, Mexican, seafood, fast food, diners, etc. etc. -- all the usual culinary suspects are present and accounted for ad infinitum all over town. Even some of the more obscure, off beat, less obvious choices -- like Korean Cajun or Afghani food -- can be found here as well. To live in NYC is to eat NYC, if you catch my drift. 

One thing that NYC does very well, even our city's biggest detractors would agree, is deli. This is a town where you can get all kinds of great soups, "sammiches", and other tasty Jewish inspired fair. Some delis, like Katz's, are world famous -- even infamous. (The food at Katz's is so good that it made someone have an orgasm in a movie.) Another revered deli is the Carnegie, also made famous in a movie (Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose). And yet, like so many old-school institutions in NYC these days, the Carnegie is fated to close. On December 31st it will shut its doors. 

Now this blog is nothing if not nostalgic. I harp on and on about how this town has become gutted by money, the old and wonderful being replaced by the new and cheesy. But I cannot include the Carnegie Deli on this list. First, the Carnegie is not a victim of gentrification and rising rents -- the owners simply wish to close it. Second, even its biggest fans agree, the Carnegie long ago stopped being a real grubby New York joint and became a complete tourist trap. Third, and this is just my humble opinion, the Carnegie was never really that good to begin with. Yes, it had NYC "cred" (for a while at least); yes, the great comics and writers and showbiz types hung out there; and yes, the sandwiches were huge. But really, it was overrated. The tables were cramped, the waiters were rude, and, while the meat in the sandwiches was first-class, the bread was bad and the lettuce was cheap. Even though the meat was good, there was so much of it that eating the sandwiches was more of an ordeal than a pleasure. Who in their right mind can or wants to each that much meat in one sitting? It was ridiculous and not charming. So while I'm sad, in theory, that the Carnegie is closing, it does not mark for me, at least, a great loss for the NYC culture.

That said, Rao's, the historic East Harlem Italian restaurant, is a great piece of the NYC food culture. The impossible-to-get-into "joint" serves some of the best Italian grub that I've ever had -- the lemon chicken, the meatballs, and the cheesecake are outstanding. The original NYC Rao's is 120 years old but now there are locations in LA and Las Vegas that are very popular, and you can also buy their sauces in grocery stores and their cookbooks online and in bookstores. Vanity Fair has a huge article this month about the history and lore of Rao's and it's worth checking out. I've eaten there twice (one of the lucky few) and it really is a fun place. If this place ever closes, I'll actually be sad.