On the Culture Front: NYC Winter Jazzfest, Lazarus and more

When Richard Greenberg is at his best, his plays not only vividly illuminate a specific and intimate world but they compel the viewer to look inward and reflect on the arc of their own lives. This is the profound effect that I remember feeling when I first read "Three Days of Rain" - the dialogue so bluntly honest yet meticulously crafted with wit and heart. I preferred "Take Me Out" in its unabridged Public Theater production because even though it contained material that could be and was eventually cut, it was so intricately constructed and woven into the core of its characters. His latest play, "Our Mother's Brief Affair," was first produced at the South Coast Rep a few years ago and is currently running on Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway stage. It takes a similar structure to "Three Days of Rain" of juxtaposing past and present, but instead of giving each period its own act, the two share the stage like estranged friends exchanging an awkward moment. There's a beauty to having the past so close yet in such fleeting glimpses, and Linda Lavin mines the dimensions of a woman "on one of her many death beds" with a secret to tell her children. There are many intricately constructed witty lines to be had throughout the evening, a pretty big surprise, an almost catharsis, and a lot of good acting, but it feels like Greenberg is only scratching the surface here.

As a sequel of sorts to "The Man Who Fell to Earth," it would be unrealistic to expect "Lazarus" to conform to narrative storytelling expectations. What you can expect is a beautiful expansive dream illustrated by Ivo Van Hove of David Bowie's final creative moments. Light and darkness exist simultaneously, informing each other and also highlighting the contradictions of human emotions. In a fit of mania, Cristin Milioti's character shouts, "no one chooses the heads we're born with," in a plea that doubles as an eerie moment of clarity. When Bowie died a couple days after the performance I attended, the outpouring of remembrances, eulogies, and essays was staggering. In a way that was never saccharine, he made a profound case for letting "the other" inside us shine and not get buried underneath a blur of conformity while acknowledging the existential quagmire of mortal beings. "Lazarus" is a fitting elegy to a man who used his creations to expand his and our conception of the world around us.

Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" is one of the greatest farces written for the stage or screen. The rapidly cascading dialogue delights in the mania and resulting catastrophes inflicted on a poor troupe of traveling actors as they try to memorize stage business - "I take the sardines. No, I leave the sardines" - and cope with off-stage dramas. When I interviewed director Anna Shapiro a couple years back, she told me it was a play she'd love to direct. I hope I we get to see that someday. While Jeremy Herrin's current revival at the roundabout delivers some big laughs in the second and third act, the first fell quite flat for me and I noticed when the curtain came up for intermission, I hadn't laughed much. The last production on Broadway in 2001 by Jeremy Sams had me almost falling out of my seat. I was just beginning college at the time and perhaps that could account for it, but think its becasue this production never quite hits the play's fast-paced rhythm. Farce is like music, if the timing is off, it doesn't matter how virtuosic the musicians are. Despite an excellent cast, this "Noises Off" doesn't find its groove.

One of my favorite things about winter is Winter Jazz Fest, a festival for people who willingly cramp into impossibly tiny spaces and pay dearly to hear their favorite acts play an hour-long set at a storied jazz club. The fests near dozen venues doesn't contain any of these landmarks but rather takes the musicians that normally play them and puts them on stages where audiences can freely move between the wide variations on this rich art form that they represent. On Saturday night, I saw six wildly diverse acts and had planned to see more before exhaustion got the better of me. I began the evening in a plush seat in the New School's beautiful Tishman auditorium listening to Michael Formanek's brassy Ensemble Kolossus. The muscians were incredible and played amazing compositions that at their best echoed Charles Mingus' syncopated drive and experimentation. The problem is they too often descended into technical indulgences that while impressive left my ear cold.

Next up on another New School stage, I saw the Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson use a laptop to lay rich pop-inflected backdrops for alto saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo and tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry. It felt like the electronic music world's answer to jazz and hopefully the beginning of a longer exploration for Anderson. I had to leave mid-set to catch the enchanting Ethiopian-American Meklit Hadero who has a sound that is uniquely her own at Zinc Bar. Building on the traditions of Ella, Billie, and all those who came before to move the genre to its next evolutionary plane. A Roots cover fit in as naturally as her originals, which have the airiness of bossa nova with the driving riffs of bebop. There are plenty of pop-melodic lines woven through "Waiting for Earthquakes" but also complex trumpet solos. The bass line on "Slow" paired with a trombone riff that playfully climbs up the scale creates an unforgettable groove.

I was able to grab a slice of pizza on the way to Le Poisson Rouge just a few minutes before GoGo Penguin took the stage. If Radiohead were a modern jazz-fusion trio, they might sound a lot like these Brits. Pianist Chris Illingworth creates densely melodic musical landscapes in the vein of Christopher O' Riley that are brought to a crescendo of rhythmic fury by bassist Nick Blacka and drummer Rob Turner. I was alternately wowed and bored by Rez Abbasi's Junction, but Monty Alexander revived me. Playing a combination of reggae-infused jazz and songs popularized by Frank Sinatra, Monty Alexander and the Harlem Kingston Express revived me with a sound so pure, unadorned and joyful. The band's collective wide-grin throughout the Jamaican folk song "Day-O" was contagious. Even though they didn't play their sublime take on Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry," I left feeling utterly fulfilled.