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PERFORMANCES TO REMEMBER…

I first saw Zach Grenier on stage about 15 years ago in a play produced by the long-gone but fondly remembered Circle Repertory Company called “The Fiery Furnace” by Timothy Mason. The play starred the legendary Julie Harris, but I walked away with a healthy sense of respect and admiration for Mr. Grenier, who all but walked away with the play, in the role of a seemingly naïve little schlub who finds reserves of power in a moment of crisis. He instantly became the kind of actor I’d walk a mile to see. And then he went to LA, and started doing film and television, and I was afraid we’d lost him to the stage for the wider audience television and film guarantees. He’s been films such as “Fight Club”, “Zodiac”, “Ride With The Devil”, “Rescue Dwn”, as well as a regular on “24”, “Deadwood” and “Touching Evil” on the small(er) screen. But in the last couple of years, he’s made welcome returns to the New York stage as well, while doing television here in NYC, namely “The Good Wife”. In recent years he’s played Dick Cheney in David Hare’s “Stuff Happens”, Thomas Cromwell in the revival of “A Man For All Seasons”, and most recently, Beethoven himself in “33 Variations” with Jane Fonda as his co-star. Two months ago, I saw him in a tiny little space near 11th Avenue in a new play called “Lenin’s Elbalmers”, in which he played one of the men chosen by Josef Stalin to, you guessed it, permantly embalm Nikolai Lenin. By the way, it was a terrific little production of a terrific little play that I hope sees the light of day again soon. But right now, Mr. Grenier is having the time of his life playing A Nazi named Von Pfunz in a play called “Gabriel” down in Chelsea at the Atlantic Theatre Company. It’s an odd piece about a man who washes up on a beach with no memory of his past life who may or may not be one of Hitler’s “chosen”, and Grenier plays the Nazi major who wants to claim the young man as one of his own. Grenier plays all the bases here, ranging from drunken befuddlement to terrifying menace, and, once again, makes the piece all his own. Zach Grenier is one of our finest stage actors, and he should not be missed in “Gabriel”.

Uptown at the Biltmore Theatre(just can’t bring myself to call it the Samuel J. Friedman as yet), Linda Lavin is giving a powerhouse performance in a revival of Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories”. The play has been seen twice before in New York, first at Manhattan Theatre Club some 12 years ago with Maria Tucci and Debra Messing starring, then again a year later with the legendary Uta Hagen. Well, here’s the play again, still as literary and scintillating as before, with Miss Lavin and the wonderful Sarah Paulson in the leads. It’s a literary twist on “All About Eve”, with Lavin playing the great writer/teacher and Paulson as her naïve but quick-to-learn student, with the slow descent into betrayal and distrust around every corner. Margulies owes a great debt to the Pulitzer prize winning novel “Humboldt’s Gift” by Saul Bellow for his play, a debt I don’t think has ever been acknowledged, but that’s probably the Bellow fanatic/lover in me talking, because I think “Humboldt’s Gift” is one of the best novels of the 20th century, but nevertheless, the play deserves to be seen again, mainly to showcase a bravura acting turn by the quicksilver Miss Lavin. Her physical transformation into a bitter, dying shadow in the last scene is worth the price of admssion alone.

Stanley Tucci has directed “Lend Me A Tenor” to within an inch of its life, and truthfully, his production is better than the play itself, because the play can be a groaner-BUT-his cast is flawless. There is superb work here from Anthony LaPaglia, Tony Shalhoub, Justin Bartha and especially the priceless Jan Maxwell, who manages yet another diamond-hard, crystal clear performance in one season, after her triumph in “The Royal Family” last autumn. I think we’ll be seeing Miss Maxwell gracing the stage of the Tony Awards this year, if not for one performance, then maybe for both. I think Mr. Tucci might well be the front runner for Best Director of a Play as well.

I must also recommend seeing a new musical, “The Kid”, about the columnist Dan Savage’s attempts to adopt a baby aided and abetted by friends and family at every turn. Christopher Sieber, so wonderful in “Spamalot” and “Shrek the Musical”, stars as Savage and yes, he’s funny and touching, but it’s a young actor, Lucas Steele, who manages to touch the heart and the funnybone here as Savage’s boyfriend, Terry. He’s the emotional center of a surprisingly moving piece. Quietly clever lyrics, catchy tunes…sweet musical here, folks.

And last but not least, playwright Annie Baker has managed to pull off another coup with another lovely little play, after her recent success with “Circle, Mirror, Transformation”. Her latest work, “The Aliens”, playing at the Rattlestick on Waverly Place, puts a catch in your throat and a warm feeling in your gut with a simple, effective story about oddball/slacker/quasi-geniuses somewhere in the back of a deli in Vermont. Michael Chernus gives a quiet, powerful performance here and is a joy to behold. Sam Gold, as he did in Miss Baker’s previous play, directs with a feather-light but assured touch, and, to dredge up an oft-used quote, “this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship”. Gold and Baker could be this generations Kazan and Williams.