"Hadestown" breathes fiery soul into the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Originally written as an album by singer/songwriter Anais Mitchell, there's a lot to love about this foot-stomping show that floats somewhere between a song cycle and fully realized musical. Because there isn't a proper book, the story structure initially suffers as the doomed lovers meet. I don't quite by their love though this could be because of Damon Daunno's irritating falsetto that brought to mind the artificial slickness of a John Meyer. Nabiyah Be's Eurydice on the other hand is as beguiling as it is entrancing. It's easy to see why someone would descend into the underworld to get her back. Then again, New York is a big city where charm abounds and the notion of "the one" feels increasingly outdated. Patrick Page is utterly commanding as Hades and when he sings "Why We Build the Wall," it's impossible not to think of Donald Trump's demagoguery. He would probably see Hades as a terrific king.
There are few playwrights more skilled at writing farces than Alan Ayckbourn. The sheer mathematical construction behind plays like "House" and "Garden" and "The Norman Conquests" is astounding. For the Brits Off-Broadway festival which just concluded, the Stephen Joseph Theatre of Scarborough put on two plays ("Confusions" and "Hero's Welcome"). One of his first and last respectively, the pairing doesn't quite fit together as I whole, but I found a lot to love in "Confusions." Structured as a series of five vignettes, Ayckbourn mines the misunderstandings of several people who are either in love, want to be or think that they are. The humor lies in the gaps of what they don't know and much is revealed in front of us for sustained hilarity.
"Radiant Vermin" also part of the fest strikes a much darker (and funnier tone). Philip Ridley, whose disturbingly memorable "Mercury Fur" ran at the New Group last season, delivers a scathing indictment not just on gentrification but on the machine of material attachment that drives us into jobs we don't want to get that bigger house or car or simply send our kids to the "right" school. The couple the play focuses on make a pact with the devil (in disguise as a real estate agent) that becomes bloodier throughout an utterly engaging ninety minutes. What I love most about Ridley's writing is his ability to stun the senses in a way that makes you rethink your assumptions about society and yourself.
Samuel D. Hunter writes about the "other America," the one that is landlocked not only by geography but by a lack of opportunity. His latest play, "The Healing," is a slice-of-life study of a group of friends who bond as children at a summer camp whose director tells them if they pray hard enough then their disabilities would go away. Fast forward a couple decades and the bonds between them are as visible as the scars. The cast of this Theater Breaking Through Barriers production mixes disabled and able-bodied performers seamlessly and Hunter's richly drawn characters are far from stereotypical.
In "Hillary and Clinton," Lucas Hnath's latest play, which made its East Coast premiere at the Philadelphia Theatre Company this past month, imagines a parallel universe for Hillary Clinton on the eve of the 2008 New Hampshire primary. Bill is a character, played with mischievous by John Procaccino, but the point isn't to do a who's who. Hnath's ambitions are much more expansive and philosophical. "Out of all the choices, why this one?" is a question that could be applied throughout including regarding casting Hillary as black. Alice B. Gatling delivers a nuanced portrayal of the consummate politician as both exactingly ambition and vulnerable, not just in her marriage but in the world and her desire to remake it. There isn't one thought that Hnath concludes with but the idea of multitudes of possibilities that dissuade dogmatic thinking of all stripes. With the conventions nearing, it's a sensibility worth considering.
I watched the Fourth of July fireworks from the crowded terrace of the Museum of Jewish Heritage amongst quips that this wasn't the Macy's production but one from Jersey. I didn't research those claims but was pretty impressed with spectacle, which culminated with rapid-fire explosions of light and sound. Inside the crowd was nearly as raucous, queuing up for a kosher barbecue of hot dogs and hamburgers after an early performance of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene production of "The Golden Bride," a romantic musical comedy from the 1920s. Later in the night that cast broke out into classics like "Oklahoma" and "If I Loved You."
The French Institute Alliance Française's Bastille Day celebration drew the largest crowd I've ever seen on East 60th street. The narrow thoroughfare that's usually jammed with crosstown traffic but sparse with pedestrians was packed to the gills with people browsing through the dozens of booths that brought a slice of Paris to the Upper East Side complete with airy baguette sandwiches from Financier Patisserie, fine dry white wines from Sud de France and a lineup of free entertainment including the joyously brassy Hungry March Band.
On the drinking front, I attended a book party for "The Essential New York Times Book of Cocktails," edited by Steve Reddicliffe. Skimming through the hardcover tomb that spans almost 500 pages, it appears it actually lives up to that claim. What sets it aside from other recipe books is not the variety of the 350 drinks it contains but the depths of the stories and history behind them, including the "Greenport Shuffle" concocted by a boat captain from the North Fork and told by Sam Sifton. Drinks on hand at the party, held in the elegantly cozy new cocktail pub Suffolk Arms, included the sublimely refreshing English Grapefruit Cup. A seamless mix of Schofferhofer grapefruit beer, Canton ginger liquor, cucumber, and fresh mint; this drink exudes summer like few others.
Another summer essential is a place to escape the city, and I've found increasingly that place is Peekskill, a small town on the Hudson River technically in Westchester but with none of the counties polished blandness. Craft beer bars abound as do great eateries. Another hidden gem is the recently renovated Paramount theater that sits among indie coffee shops and a pretty awesome used bookstore. The lineup hews baby boomer but some great people pass by here. A couple months back I caught singer/songwriter John Hiatt play a solo gig. Like a lot of Nashville musicians, he's unassumingly written some major hits like "Have a Little Faith in Me." I missed his band but there was an informal intimacy that's usually lost in more polished city gigs.
Festivals define the city in the summer more than just about any other event. They encapsulate the kind of transportive cultural experiences that make us New Yorkers feel like the world comes to us. The Big Apple BBQ squeezed a trip to the best barbecue pits in the south into an afternoon. I gravitated to the whole hog pulled pork, which was served up with coleslaw by North Carolina's Sam Jones and in West Tennessee style by Nashville's Pat Martin. Dessert came from the Original Fried Pie Shop in Texas (think a McDonald's apple pie but better). I washed it all down with vodka, lemonade and mint concoction that was as intoxicating as it was refreshing.
I caught a few concerts at the Northside Festival, Williamsburg's less crowded and more laidback answer to CMJ and SXSW. One name stood out immediately from the lineup: Brain Wilson playing "Pet Sounds" and that he did on an unseasonably cool and windy evening. The album's aching brilliance that highlights the impermanence of life felt particularly resonant being sung by the weathered legend. His shaky phrasing only added to the strength of songs like "Here Today" and "You Still Believe in Me." Conor Oberst took the same stage the night before for a rousing set of country-inflected indie folk. Whether he's playing under the Bright Eyes moniker or his own name, songs like "Four Winds" and "Soul Singer in a Session Band" exude a rare timelessness. The surprise of the weekend was Psychic Ills. I stepped into their late-night set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg with no expectations and just a vague familiarity with their music. Their largely instrumental modern psychedelic sound wrapped me into a trance. Song after song bled into each other in the dimly lit room as the mysterious shadows onstage played with a beautiful and precise drone that made me wonder if this is what people felt like when they heard the Velvet Underground at Andy Warhol's Factory for the first time.
Vjay Iyer's rhythmic phrasing is like no other jazz piano player. He weaves his melodies into tightly wrought grooves in his original compositions and inspired covers of MIA and Michael Jackson among others. His set at the Jazz Standard last month was like a drug. I left feeling elated, relaxed and energized. It was the purest high I've felt in a while. It could be said that Iyer's playing implies its own percussive beats and a drummer isn't necessary but once you hear Marcus Gilmore that thought quickly vanishes. I was sitting just a few feet from him and each drum and cymbal crash reverberated through my body heightening both melody and rhythm as Stephan Crump's bass pulsed furiously in the spaces between. Anyone who thinks jazz is dead or irrelevant should hear these three play together.