On the Culture Front: Better Call Saul, Constellations, Tijuana Picnic, and More

Last night, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, and Michael McKean took the stage at the 92nd Street Y to talk with moderator Cynthia Littleton about the highly anticipated "Breaking Bad" spinoff "Better Call Saul." I interviewed Banks the previous day for the Washington Post and avoiding spoilers felt like dodging carefully planted land mines in a desert war zone. As the actors got more comfortable though, many amusing bits came out including Banks and McKean teasing Odenkirk when he professed his love for Albuquerque. Check out the whole talk here along with a treasure trove of talks at the famed Upper East Side cultural institution.

On the theater front, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson exquisitely and painfully capture all the beats of a long-term relationship, from first meeting to last breath in Nick Payne's sparsely poetic and sharply observed one act "Constellations." He has volumes to say about human relationships and heady topics such as parallel universes and the time space continuum but does it all with the lightest and cleverest touch. Leaving Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway space, I felt as though I'd traveled a lifetime and then was catapulted back through a wormhole eighty miraculous minutes later.

Ayad Akhtar's "The Invisible Hand" at New York Theatre Workshop is a thrilling and darkly funny exploration of a terrorist group in Pakistan who kidnap a western banker. The title slyly refers to the forces of capitalism and issues of economics (in theory and practice) get tossed around throughout under the deft direction of Ken Rus Schmoll. Akhtar disarms with humor but the play couldn't feel more relevant, and at times terrifying, in the current climate. Justin Kirk, known for playing a loveable slacker on "Weeds," heads a pitch perfect cast whose faces will be seared in your mind. Akhtar is one of the most exciting voices in the theater today, and I can't wait to see what he does next.

The Soho Rep consistently turns out thought-provoking theater. My profile of artistic director, Sarah Benson, is in American Theatre this month, but their last show went up after it went to print. "Winners and Losers," a show Benson first saw in Canada blurs the lines between artifice and life as two actors who are friends ask each other to deem a series of people, ideas, and events either a "winner" or a "loser." They take suggestions from the audience, but when they start delving into each other's personal lives, things get raw. It's hard to know how much of the latter is scripted but that's part of the fun.

There aren't many people that have a better reputation for "fun" as Eric Idle, the legendary Monty Python member who morbidly and gleefully sang, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" at the end of life "Life of Brian." He reprised that performance and many more with the Collegiate Chorale at Carnegie Hall over the holidays in show dubbed "Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy). In addition to the full choir, he was backed by the Orchestra of St. Luke's and members of the New York Metro Pipe Band - quite an epic sound combined. While not as funny as the movie or the Python's classic sketches, it was an undeniably good time. Standout moments included Idle doing a spot-on Dylan impression and Marc Kudisch as a series of Roman buffoons.

Bad behavior abounds in the well-polished if slight new musical, "Honeymoon in Vegas." The real star is Jason Robert Brown's pastiche score that draws heavily on old big band music, and to the show's credit, features their own live band front and center. I'm sad to say that's mostly what I remember from the show that slipped through me like a glass of seltzer - refreshing but quickly erased from the palate.

I caught Taylor Mac's "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1930's - 1950's" at New York Live Arts in a co-production with the Public's Under the Radar Festival. Mac performed three dozen songs from the three decades as a way of processing history, the evolution of social mores, the rise of social justice and the ongoing struggle of civil and LGBT rights. Judy (the gender pronoun Mac prefers) is a powerhouse performer whose boundless energy is as contagious as a measles outbreak. There's a lot of audience participation required, but it serves the show's larger immersive goals, carrying us through moments of the past that we thought we knew or never had the need to think about. Mac's macabre rendition of "Accentuate the Positive," sung in a concentration camp, is chilling - I'm quite convinced I'll never be able to listen to that song in a upbeat way again. Can't wait for the rest of the decades.

On the food and drink front, Tijuana Picnic hits all the right notes. A mellow yet colorfully elegant restaurant on the Lower East Side, I wasn't surprised to find out it's owned by the same people as The Happiest Hour and Indochine. Downstairs there's an intimate bar serving inspired drinks including the Mi Hermano, a blend of Reposado tequila, Averna, Fernet, Dolin Rouge, and Mole Bitters. A full menu includes tacos (the veggie ones pack quite the spicy punch) and bites like duck empanadas and a ceviche with a jalapeño pesto. Save room for entrées such as purquito, a pork chop marinated in coconut milk and topped with a chimichurri sauce with thai spices.

Ceviche master Javier Wong took over Bagatelle a couple weeks ago to cut up some impossibly fresh fish in the name of Help Peru. Roasted duck followed it and all was delicious, including the endlessly flowing pisco sours, a Peruvian pastime.

On the music front, The Ting Tings cut it up at an intimate and sold out Bowery Ballroom show. Unfortunately, my date lost her phone and I was stuck roaming the Lower East Side for it until a kind woman called with news that she'd found it. After a brief reunion in Vanessa's Dumplings, we rushed over to catch the last half of the show. Highlights included "That's Not My Name," - their peppy and deviant anthem - and an impromptu balloon party that sprung to life when a man passed a bag around the crowd and the colorful orbs lifted into the air, bobbing along with us to the music.

Pearl and the Beard make an unlikely but welcome addition to the oversaturated indie folk scene. A trio of guitar, drums, and cello - yes, you read that right - took the stage at Rough Trade for a rousing set. "Reverend" was one of my personal favorites, combining a nice mix of driving melody, anthemic vocals, and the cello providing a lower register heft. Notes of bluegrass trace through their music as well. "40K" combines frenzied phrasing with lush strings united by strong harmonies and the catchy refrain, "you never come when you say you will." I wouldn't be surprised to see them on a bigger stage soon.

Marcus Goldhaber croons the "great American songbook" with a charming ease and a great sense of phrasing. His love of Harold Arlen (of "Wizard of Oz" fame") came through on a snowy day the other week at a positively bizarre space in the Kitano - think Midwestern hotel bar meets diner - with pretty good acoustics and an intimate feel. Not a bad way to spend a cold evening.

Joe Russo's Almost Dead is a jam band super group with Russo hailing from Phil Lesh's Furthur and Ween's Dave Dreiwitz on bass. Guitarist Scott Metzger has played with Gov't Mule and many others, but I was drawn in by Marco Benevento, their jazz-trained keyboardist who killed it in The Complete Last Waltz. Benevento didn't disappoint and they even played a Band song, "Ophelia," but the real star might have been the audience who treated the Brooklyn Bowl show like a dance party, gleefully bouncing around the packed space during the extended jams. The group played Grateful Dead classics such as "Ramble on Rose," "Cumberland Blues," and "Truckin" and have the sound of a guys that are fully in tune with each other. They bring the party to the State Theatre in Portland, ME tomorrow night and Fete Ballroom in Providence, RI on Sunday.