Oh, the urbanity

December 15, 2005

We’re back from New York. We had a great time, though I always find that 24 hours is just enough. It’s an amazing city, but it always makes me feel like I need a vacation to recover from my vacation.

I have no idea how people commute in and out of the city by car every day. Here’s hoping that the transit strike is averted, because that sounds like a recipe for city-wide madness, especially with countless tourists like me flooding the city. (I got the impression that the people who actually live and work in New York, while gracious to out-of-towners and resigned to the holiday flood, really would like their city back. I can’t blame them.)

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The three most menacing things we faced in Manhattan:

  1. Older, wealthy people bolting from hotels and chic restaurants to their limousines, heedless of other sidewalk users. Yes, it was cold, but if one more fur-wearing woman with over-processed hair had tried to knock me into a trash can to reach her Lexus, I might have caused an incident.
  2. Absent-minded parents with strollers combining sightseeing during such activities as walking through crosswalks. When crossing in front of Saks, I actually did take a spill in the street because of a wheel to the ankle. “Be careful!” the stroller navigator shrieked. Thanks for the tip.
  3. Frozen latte spills on the sidewalk. This is the urban black ice, slicker and a hundred times more deadly than any mere precipitation. Watch for it. Fear it.

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Neither of us crazy about the plays of David Mamet, partly because they seem so manly and hostile and artificial. But it seems like we can’t go to Manhattan without overhearing the kind of conversations that must surely inspire Mamet’s dialogue.

Last year, it was a party of three at the next table at the Carnegie Deli having the kind of discussion that should theoretically make every woman within earshot rise up and crush them. This year, it was a pair of businessmen sucking down gin and tonics at a hotel bar in Midtown. It was like a deleted scene from Glengarry Glen Ross.

(It was also the most wonderfully lethal martini I’ve ever consumed – more Bombay Sapphire than it seemed possible for a glass to contain, frosty as could be. Well done, bartender.)

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After a careful survey, I have to give the First Annual Best Department Store Holiday Window Design Award to Bergdorf Goodman. They’re beautiful and somewhat disturbing.

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I’m not usually in favor of garments for dogs, but there were some mighty nifty hand-knit dog sweaters on display in the city. And the smaller breeds really needed the extra warmth.

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If you’re wandering around Madison Avenue in the east 60s and feel frail, you might stop in Teuscher’s and get some of the dark chocolate champagne truffles. They start a little weird, and they’re kind of expensive, but the finish is awesome, and the sugar rush will carry you for blocks and blocks.

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Once again, Jim Hanley’s Universe and Midtown Comics battle for my love. Hanley’s was having a sale and had a copy of the new Matt Madden book, but the store always leaves me feeling overwhelmed. Midtown looks like a Restoration Hardware and doesn’t have near Hanley’s selection, but they did have a copy of Times of Botchan. Torn between two lovers…

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The main reason for the trip was to see the new revival of Sweeney Todd. I was a little nervous about it at first. The director, John Doyle, has stripped the bloody operetta down, staging it as an exercise in art therapy at a mental hospital. The cast of ten also functions as the orchestra.

The original production was a giant, music-hall monster, and I love it a lot. This version is sleek, small, and maybe one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen on a stage.

The minimalist approach doesn’t diminish the impact at all. It actually draws more focus to the story and the music, heightening their impact and giving everything eerie intensity. The play-within-a-play configuration works exceptionally well. Doyle doesn’t try and impose anything new on the piece, instead using the character dynamics of the asylum to inform everything that’s already there. It makes for some very haunting moments, and it gives added weight to just about every relationship in the play.

I’ve come to think of Patti Lupone as a Big F**king Star, the kind of performing personality who carries so much familiarity and baggage to everything she does that you have to be very careful in how you use her. But she falls into the ensemble with a complete lack of vanity, playing the xylophone, triangle, and tuba when she isn’t snarling out her distinctive version of meat-pie purveyor Mrs. Lovett.

But the whole cast is incredible, including Michael Cerveris as a sleek, frightening Sweeney and Manoel Feliciano as a Tobias who sings and plays the violin with equal lyricism. Most amazing was Lauren Molina as ingénue Johanna. That part of the piece never worked well for me in the original, but Molina is amazing as a disturbed young woman playing a disturbed young woman. The fluff is all gone, and the character is as funny, moving, and chilling as I think she was always meant to be.

You’d think the novelty of seeing actors as the orchestra would be distracting, and it is initially. But it all comes together because the piece is so carefully conceived. It’s also the end of “triple threat” as the highest compliment that can be paid to a Broadway performer. Sure, lots of people can sing, dance, and act, but can they play the cello or the tuba while they do it? Expect a monotonous repetition of the musical’s title during the Tony Award broadcast in the spring.

PBS did audiences a huge favor when they captured the original production on video. They should repeat the favor with this version. It’s just that good.

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Lastly, an apology: if you were riding on the Broadway Local on Wednesday morning and got clocked by a couple of gay men with Zabar’s bags full of cheese and more rugelach than any two people should consume, that was us. We’re really sorry. It was an accident.