Mark Nelson

Restaurant Guide

Review of The Most Beautiful Room in New York, Long Wharf Theatre

The promise of the new musical The Most Beautiful Room in New York, in its premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, is a tuneful look at the rigors of sustaining a beloved Union Square restaurant in these days of rampant greed and bad taste. Adam Gopnik, a well-known New Yorker author, provides the book and lyrics, and should have a take on New York restaurant culture to entertain and enlighten, particularly as he’s also the author of The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. With music by composer David Shire, who once upon a time composed the soundtrack for the very gritty New York caper-fable The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, we should be transported to a piquant urban ambiance. Not quite. This battle for the soul of a mom-and-pop eatery offers a main entrée with too much filler, and really only tastes satisfyingly urban in its side-dishes.

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

David (Matt Bogart, stepping into the role late in the run-up to opening and providing a likeable heart of the story) is the chef and co-owner of “Table,” a small, successful restaurant. Presented as a dreamer, by his more practical wife and business partner Claire (Anastasia Barzee), David’s a “poet” of the food industry who tilts at windmills. He believes he’s solved the problem of the huge mark-up in rent that will otherwise put him out of business: a deal with the devil, sort of. The “devil,” in this case, is the long-haired, rock star of a chef named Sergio (Constantine Maroulis, also likeable though supposed to be dastardly) who has his own agenda. Once “brothers” in their early years of trying to make a name in the food business, Sergio has long since surpassed David in the earning ability of his brand. But he’s always looking for new territory to exploit. Thus comes the Faustian bargain, served up by an entertaining duet “Take My Life.”

David (Matt Bogart), Sergio (Constantine Maroulis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

David (Matt Bogart), Sergio (Constantine Maroulis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

If that were all, that might be enough, particularly as “Market Forces,” sung by Phoebe (Darlesia Cearcy), one half of a lesbian couple that manages the co-op farmer’s market in the Square, is one of the best songs delivered by one of the show’s best singers. Maybe we will be treated to a musical unmasking of how capitalism foils all but the most bread-winning choices. Unfortunately, Phoebe’s musings are merely a side-dish. As is the other delicious touch: Mark Nelson’s very welcome comic turn as the proprietor of Carlo’s Anarchist Pizza, a Bensonhurst establishment where each slice is viewed as an individual pie, making the solidarity of each pizza stronger. Carlo is introduced fairly early on, when David and Claire’s son Bix (Tyler Jones, playing a more wholesome version of a Spielberg teen) delivers some fresh mozz. We might for a moment contemplate a musical world filled with off-beat eateries catering to varied political and gustatory manifestos, but this isn’t that show, though Michael Yeargan’s masterful, flavorful sets might keep you hoping.

Anna (Krystina Alabado), Carlo (Mark Nelson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Anna (Krystina Alabado), Carlo (Mark Nelson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Instead, it’s a romance. Middle-aging-ish romance served up with jealousy—that eternal spice of the tried-and-true. David realizes that Claire had a weekend that shall evermore remain legendary . . . in Wildwood, New Jersey, with Sergio. Sergio, though jaded by his conquest of the world, or at least the media, can’t seem to get past their night in the fabled “Doo Wop Motel.” If this sounds preposterous, well, it is a musical. The will-she, won’t-she plot line does nothing to help the restaurant story, but it does make that “most beautiful room” seem built on airy nothings. We have to accept that Claire is bored enough with it all, including a teen son courting Anna (Krystina Alabado), the daughter of Carlo, to take up with a sleazy wheeler-dealer who talks like Trump and looks like Bono (indeed, Maroulis hints at being a belter à la Sir Vox, but never really gets to show off the pipes here). Phoebe, always on hand to offer colorful asides, opines that “straight women” almost always prefer the pirate to the poet, and that should be good enough for motivation.

Bix (Tyler Jones), Kate (Sawyer Niehaus), Claire (Anastasia Barzee) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bix (Tyler Jones), Kate (Sawyer Niehaus), Claire (Anastasia Barzee) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Act Two is shorter than Act One and if the romantic interests grip you, you’ll be satisfied as the plot plays out. For me, songs four—the title song, a lovely duet between David and his daughter Kate (Sawyer Niehaus)—through eight, a charming little riff on the current teen generation, “So, Like, Maybe”—are the best stuff in the show, which includes “Take My Life,” “Market Forces,” and Carlo’s “Espresso!”  All of which arrive before the love triangle rears its hoary head. Carlo comes back in Act Two—thankfully!—with the nicely turned “Slice of Life,” but Phoebe and her partner Gloria (Danielle Ferland) try rather doggedly, in “Lucky,” to poke fun at the ideals of marriage.

Through it all, our central family—and they have plenty of songs to prove it—remains so bland we can’t help but wonder if maybe the surly diner Gabe (Allan Washington, another spot-on side) is onto something: pass the hot sauce!

À chacun son goût.

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)



The Most Beautiful Room in New York
Music by David Shire
Book & Lyrics by Adam Gopnik
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Musical Staging: John Carrafa; Music Director & Supervisor: John McDaniel; Orchestration: Jonathan Tunick; Additional Musical Arrangements: John McDaniel; Set Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design: Keith Caggiano; Associate Music Director: Jesse Kissel; Associate Choreographer: Jenn Rapp; Production Stage Manager: Linda Marvel; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Calleri Casting

Cast: Krystina Alabado, Anastasia Barzee, Matt Bogart, Darlesia Cearcy, Ryan Duncan, Danielle Ferland, Anne Horak, Tyler Jones, Constantine Maroulis, Mark Nelson, Sawyer Niehaus, Allan Washington

Musicians: Conductor/Keyboard 1: John McDaniel; Keyboard 2: Jesse Kissel; Trumpet: Dan Duncan; Reed 1: Tim Moran; Reed 2: Andrew Studenski; String Bass/Electric: Dave Daddario; Drums/Percussion: Ed Fast

The Long Wharf Theatre
May 3-28, 2017

Looking Ahead at the Long Wharf

One of the most popular of last season’s productions at the Long Wharf Theatre—My Name is Asher Lev—will be produced Off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd Street, beginning on November 8, with the opening night set for November 28. Director Gordon Edelstein, and Ari Brand and Mark Nelson—both excellent in the Long Wharf show—will reunite in New York to recreate this thoughtful and compact re-telling of Chaim Potok’s novel about a young Jewish painter coming to terms with his faith’s prohibition on images, while also tracing the drama of the artist’s growth within his family and his community.

The play closed last year’s Long Wharf season, offering an autobiographical drama staged as a direct address to the audience.  And this year’s Long Wharf season begins with an autobiographical play that is a direct address to the audience, also directed by Edelstein.

This time the play is Satchmo at the Waldorf, written by Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, and the biographer of Louis Armstrong, the subject of the play.  Unlike Asher Lev, Satchmo is a one-man show, with celebrated actor John Douglas Thompson (recently featured in a New Yorker profile) playing the jazz great, known as “Satchmo” (short for “satchel mouth,” a nickname invented because of his wide mouth and the distinctive style of trumpet playing that issued from it).

Unlike the production of Ella in the Long Wharf’s 2010 Season, Satchmo is not about the music.  Teachout has created a play that, set backstage after Armstrong’s last performance, looks at the musician’s life and long career from his perspective, bringing forward the fraught relationship with his controlling manager, Joe Glaser.  Thompson plays Armstrong, Glaser, and at one point Miles Davis.  Teachout said he deliberately avoided the “unchallenging, sweet-tempered exercises in hagiography” that most biographical plays become, wanting to give us an unadorned Armstrong, closer to the actual man than the stage persona beloved by so many. Much of the play’s success, one suspects, will ride on Thompson’s skill at getting us inside the character.

Satchmo at the Waldorf opens tomorrow night, Wednesday, October 3, and runs to Sunday, November 4 on Stage II.

The season showcases Long Wharf’s two resident directors: Edelstein, the Artistic Director, and Eric Ting, Associate Artistic Director, with Edelstein helming Satchmo, and two works on the Main Stage by hard-hitting playwrights: Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, a drama of a family tearing itself apart to get ahead, and William Mastrosimone’s Ride the Tiger, about the behind-the-scenes sex and shenanigans leading up to the election of 1960, with John F. Kennedy, mob boss Sam Giancarlo, and Frank Sinatra trying to bed the same woman.  Judith Ivey, whose work in Shirley Valentine at the Long Wharf was warmly received in 2010, will be featured in the Shepard play.

Ting will direct Clybourne Park; Bruce Norris’ drama on race in America is set in the house bought by the Youngers, the upwardly mobile black family in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.  The much acclaimed play—it won both the Pulitizer Prize for Drama in 2011 and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2012—will close the season.  Midseason, Ting directs January Joiner, a world premiere, on Stage II; it's a “horror comedy,” by young playwright Laura Jacqmin, set at a weight-loss boot camp (a “January joiner” is someone who joins a weight-loss program in January as a New Year’s resolution, but soon drops out).

The play this season not directed by Edelstein or Ting should be interesting as well: film star and Broadway actress Kathleen Turner will direct herself in The Killing of Sister George, Frank Marcus’s 1964 play, a bristling comedy about a radio-actress unwilling to let her role go off the air without a fight.  The 1968 film of the play played up, rather sensationally, the lesbian relationship between the radio star and her housemate, and it will be interesting to see what spin the play receives today, directed by its star.

Meanwhile, the much-anticipated renovation continues for the mainstage.  The seating is being greatly improved—more leg room!—and the lobby has been redesigned, the bathrooms enlarged, and the façade has had “work done.”

A Portrait of the Artist as a Boychik

Chaim Potok’s novel  My Name is Asher Lev tells the age-old tale of youthful rebellion in the name of art.  Like James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, Asher is a young man with a vocation to express himself creatively.  His destiny impels him to become a painter, even at the risk of offending his parents and his religious community.  But unlike Stephen, Asher remains within his faith, an orthodox Jew with very unorthodox views on what subject matter is permissible in his art.  Thus, in a sense, Potok gets to have it both ways: rather than telling a story like Joyce tells—in which a religion of art must substitute, in Catholic Ireland, for a lost religious faith—Potok lets Asher articulate his faith in art as an aspect of his larger faith in Man, and in his own people, and in their G*d. And yet, in the end, Asher must still wrestle with his parents’ inability to understand his intentions, and walk the solitary path of the artist driven by his own conscience.

If this sounds like a romantic tale, it should.  Aaron Posner’s adaptation of My Name is Asher Lev, onstage at the Long Wharf, takes place in a world where talent is acknowledged and reaps the admiration of the world—a success story wherein the problem is not a struggle with the goyische world of art critics and buyers, but with the orthodox views that would have Asher stifle such things as his tendency to depict nudes and, even more outrageously for his family and the fictional Ladover Hassidism of which his father is a member, crucifixions.  In other words, struggle is of the essence of art in Potok’s story: if not a struggle to become an artist, than a struggle over subject matter.

The stakes are raised through introduction of the Hassidic concept of “sitra achra”: an expression for any interest that leads away from righteousness to the “other side” of the Almighty, the forbidden areas of life and thought, like the one our first parents explored so memorably in the Bible by partaking of the Tree of Knowledge.

As might be clear from all this exposition, My Name is Asher Lev, as a play, sins against the notion that one should limit exposition in theater.  The entire play is narrated by Asher, and his address to us, explaining himself, is illustrated by enacted scenes to dramatize the conflicts.  And that’s where the value of a theatrical rendering of the story becomes evident.  In contrast to a first-person novel, the play more directly lets us, if we are so inclined, see other characters’ points of view as more valid than Asher’s.  Granted, we have to believe in his sincerity, otherwise he’s simply a willful trouble-maker.  But we might question, at any point, his methods and his motivations.  And that makes for a complex, thinky night of theater.

We might say that director Gordon Edelstein has chosen to the let the conceptual aspects of the material inhere in its themes rather than in its dramatization.  The staging takes place with a cast of three on one versatile set—light and colors and sound (Eugene Lee, set; Chris Akerlid, lighting; John Gromada, sound design) all play an important and effective part in helping us feel the various stages of Asher’s journey.  And while alternations of direct address and illustrative interactions might have made for a lockstep production, Edelstein and his team make wonderful use of tableaux, using the power of retrospect to infuse simple moments—Asher’s mother’s ritual farewell to her oft-traveling husband, the coin an uncle pays for Asher’s first sold drawing, Asher’s mother waiting by the window, Asher’s interview with the Rebbe, and his first meetings with an art agent and with an artist’s model—with talismanic power.  Everything he tells us, Asher tells us for a reason, but it’s left to us to decide what the things Asher tells us show us of his character.


Key to this production is Ari Brand, memorable and marvelous as Asher.  Maintaining a confessional tone of thoughtful and considered declaration, he keeps us in the palm of his hand throughout.  Brand, darkly good-looking, earnest, passionate, is a beguiling guide to Asher’s life, but he also is able to show us the steely and unyielding aspects of Asher, even the obtuseness that makes him at times unfeeling of others.  It’s a portrayal of considerable skill and force, keeping us anchored to the play through the careful unfolding of Asher’s growth.


As Asher’s father, Ari, Mark Nelson is a cautious, serious man, very human in his frustration and disappointment with the path his only son takes, but it is as Asher’s mentor, Jacob Kahn, that he truly shines.  The attitude of the older Jewish painter to his protégé is full of gentle irony and affectionate, but also wary, admiration; it’s a finely nuanced portrayal and the scenes between Asher and his teacher are some of the most appealing in the play, as is Asher’s audience with the Rebbe (also Nelson), an important scene in which we see that Asher need not always struggle against incomprehension.  The Rebbe’s wisdom is a saving grace, but it can’t save Asher from his need to conquer Western art—which means painting nudes and an image of suffering, drawing upon the crucifixion of Christ, that offends his parents deeply.  (Asher’s insistence on figural art is a bit odd, given that this is the era of Abstract Expressionism, a time when, more than ever in the history of art, a painter could follow a proscription against images and thrive).


As Asher’s mother, Riv, Melissa Miller does fine work as well, particularly in a subplot in which Riv loses her beloved brother and then later studies to continue his work.  While accepted in her plans—indeed, the Rebbe helps her implement them—there is a sense in which Riv, like her son, has a tendency to somewhat original behavior.  Miller also adds interest to the show by briefly playing characters who are not patiently maternal and wifely—Anna, the artist’s agent who finds Asher’s art intriguing but his orthodoxy amusing, and the artist’s model who is the first woman to ever disrobe for the boy.


As a carefully delineated portrayal of a particular culture, the play is fascinating.  And in its focus on intergenerational familial struggle, and the struggle between orthodoxy and secular passions, Asher Lev takes on classic themes that, though ostensibly 1950s, feel a bit Turn of the Century.  Stalinism, in full force in this period, is invoked a few times, but not Freudianism—and yet a less pious production might have made something of the fact that, thanks to casting, every male is for Asher a father figure, and every woman, mom.


My Name is Asher Lev By Aaron Posner Adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok Directed by Gordon Edelstein

The Long Wharf Theatre May 2-27, 2012

Hello Dolly!

s House  LWT  067 The Long Wharf Theatre production of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House managed a surprising feat: it made the play more entertaining without significantly altering it.  If you're a purist who wants to see Ibsen played straight, it does that; but if you think that a play like ADH, with its winsome wifey who gets into some hot water due to an "innocent" forgery, then gets out of it only to slam the door on her happy-ever-after home, is a bit dated and could use some kind of make-over, well, this show does that too.

And that's what I found surprising: first, that one could perch Ibsen on the terrain of a sitcom or a soap; second, that I found myself thinking, well, isn't ADH simply a more revered soap?  After all, the plot of the story is pure soap opera, and there's nothing in the dialogue that aims beyond the play's basic premise, which is something like: happiness is only skin deep.  Scratch it, and it bleeds.  So why not give us an A Doll's House (1879) that resonates in a world of McMansions where -- as is only too timely -- a bit of financial chicanery might bring the whole cloud castle down on a bank manager's ears.

Gordon Edelstein, who did the adaptation and directed, deserves great credit for mining the comic potential in the material.  It mainly seemed to be a matter of emphasis.  The dialogue, a bit modernized, was close to any version of the play we might already be familiar with, but this production included laughs that might be in Ibsen's script but which a less enterprising director might overlook.  There was a breeziness to it that kept it from taking itself too seriously, a breeziness derived from the giddy fun of looking into our neighbors' glass house.

What's important, for a modern production, is that we not be laughing at Nora, the little bluebird, squirrel, chipmunk, as though she were simply in over her airhead and deserving of a little domestic contretemps for our amusement.  Ana Reeder made the most of making Nora likeable, cannily dim rather than actually so.  She managed the protean shifts that are necessary -- the play makes us see -- to be the "perfect wife": temptress, adoring partner, household manager, confidante to friends both male and female, defender of the threatened nest, even sacrificial victim (the latter a melodramatic touch that can't help seeming a bit 19th century).  When, in the end, she does what she's got to do, the shifts from comically desperate to happily saved to proudly determined occur a bit too fast for realism, but Reeder "kept it real," as they say, helped by the change to casual jeans and sweatshirt after the hiked skirt, hose and low neckline of her belle of the ball costume as a dancing peasant girl.  The "street clothes" underscored that her role in the household had been a command performance all along, and it was time for a curtain call.

In the supporting cast, special mention goes to Tim Hopper as Dr. Peter Rank, the ailing best friend of Nora's husband Torvald who carries a torch for her himself.  Their scenes had enough heat to make up for the rather lukewarm affections of Torvald, and Hopper's doomed departure, in cowboy costume with a big cigar going, deserved an ovation.  As Torvald, Adam Trese kept a part that could easily be a caricature sympathetic, even up to his panicked outburst at Nora for exposing him to his enemies.  I liked him best at the end as he babbled about how he forgave her, sitting in his big papa chair, and his attempts to defeat her logic resonate so well, even 21st century males might easily hear Ibsen laughing at us.

As the villain in the piece, Mark Nelson's Nils Krogstad had a kind of shaky petulance that worked well enough in confronting Nora with her wrongdoings, and in his pleas to be reinstated at the bank, but made it hard to see what her friend Christine Linde (Linda Powell) could see in him.  He seemed more eager to end it all rather than able to blackmail a boss's wife or rekindle an old romance.

Michael Yeargan's set was a wonderfully detailed doll's house, its fakery part of its appeal, with plenty of floorspace for Ibsen's and Edelstein's playthings to move about and grope toward some satisfactory vision of the future.

And what of the kids?  It may be much easier for today's male to accept without much soul-searching Nora's claim that she needs to educate herself and find a place in the world; but does today's woman find it any easier to pursue that goal at the sacrifice of her ties to her children than women would in Ibsen's day?  "You've come a long way, baby," since Ibsen's Nora first walked out -- but, Edelstein's production seems to ask, "how far would you go?"

s House  LWT  177

LONG WHARF THEATRE, Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director; Ray Cullom, Managing Director


A DOLL'S HOUSE by Henrik Ibsen, Adapted and Directed by Gordon Edelstein, Set Design by Michael Yeargan

through May 23, 2010