Sunday, June 10, 2012

Why I Appreciate Anthony Bourdain (speaking in Brooklyn at the Howard Gilman Opera House)

Enjoying his own humor, Anthony Bourdain
I watched Anthony Bourdain's Emmy Award winning No Reservations on the Travel Channel for years, less frequently now because I am writing online most days. He is an insightful raconteur and feisty, fun, global, food culturalist, promoting the human factor, sharing food and hospitality on his travels. You can expect that his move to CNN will be edgier, more dynamic and perceptive. Bourdain has the chops to accomplish great things with the sophisticated team there. Hopefully, they will allow him to deliver, as he brings his legion of fans to their viewership. I may even turn on the TV now and then just to snoop around and see what he's up to. But most likely will stream it if I can.

So when I found out that Bourdain was landing in Brooklyn at the BAM Opera House to speak, I debated whether I should attend the more personal session (pricier) to share photos, drinks and snacks with this exceptional writer and traveler, or just warm a seat as close as I could get to the stage. I did the latter which I'm thrilled that I did, but I rue that I didn't do the former as well. It would have been a gas to take some photos and post them here with a few choice rubies thrown to me during a brief exchange from this Will Rogers of the food universe.

The show was one half hour getting started because the crowd was packed out, the only criticism of the evening which was more the fault of Ticketmaster, the producers and the Opera House venue creators, I think. Who knows, but our expectations were raised as was the suspense to see the man live and in person. At last, the announcer introduced him to warm applause and catcalls by his throng of twenty to thirty somethings. 

He jaunted out on stage, dark classes, signature black sweat shirt and jacket and designer Nikes or whatever brand they were. The audience still clapping didn't realize it. At first, I was like, "What? Oh no. It's an impersonator and Bourdain got stuck in air traffic over Mumbai." When I looked again, I nearly fainted, and those around me were like, "Not. Bourdain. That's his buddy."  Then the Bourdain twin took off the glasses and jacket and Voila!
Eric Ripert (Bourdain's doppelganger revealed)
Sure enough, it was ERIC RIPERT!!!! Yeah, Eric. Clever! Ripert introduced his close friend with the faintest whisp of a French accent and the man himself appeared, hugged Ripert and went to the podium shaking his head and laughing. And that was the beginning of a fabulous night. My love of Ripert and Le Bernardin has been chronicled on Technorati. I'm planning to go back in September. How can you not respect a chef who is so particular about food safety and quality that HE GEIGER COUNTERED THE FISH HE SERVED after the Japanese nuclear disaster. And if I know Ripert, he is still doing it! Supposedly, Thomas Keller of Per Se flies in fresh fish every day. Does HE geiger counter the fish? I didn't see an article to that effect and I am looking for it.

Ripert is awesome. Bourdain respects and shares Ripert's concerns and appreciates Ripert's phenomenal interest and artistry in developing his culinary lexicon and perfecting all aspects of his restaurant, Le Bernardin. Ripert's food palate is superb and he is a gentleman and a perceptive, temperate soul. Bourdain is sanguine, humorously ironic to the point of sardonic and in your face. The two make a great team of complements. It is obvious how and why they are friends.
Who better than a close buddy to introduce you to the Brooklyn crowd and cheer you on. (Eric Ripert and A. Bourdain)
For Bourdain, center stage is his playground. He started with  a humorous and scathing shishkabob against Paula Dean, putting up some slides of her outrageously unhealthful concoctions. One of them was her notorious 1200 + calorie balloon cheeseburger on a doughnut bun. He escalated his skewerings with other fare (I'm surprised he didn't lay bare her deep fried chocolate pudding cupcakes) and concluded with her deep fried stuffing. Bourdain quipped that her recipes in no way reflect wonderful Southern cooking and he's not sure what region they represent but the Dean marketing empire and her destiny to suck up every morsel in sight and spew out culinary pornographic excess, even though it may be at the expense of her fans' waistlines. He also quipped about the products she's endorsing, a mattress  and a new diabetes drug. Of course, Bourdain was quick to point out she was mum about her diabetes for 5 years until recently so that she could advertise the new Diabetes drug on her show, proving once again that exemplifying and peddling illness can be profitable.
Bourdain during the question and answer session. Eric Riper (left) sitting and listening.
 Bourdain is a talented showman. He covered topics from his show that resonated with his fans like what you have to go through to team up with him traveling the globe (i.e. leeches, food that's inedible, gastric problems, being the guinea pig of the unexpected). Of course he discussed getting high and sneaking in clips of a foreign DEA bust aiding agents in burning up the cocaine, despite freaking out the show advertisers and administrators. He emphasized that he learned when you go to grandmas for Thanksgiving and she serves you gravy and jellied cranberries from the cans along with over salted, unsavory turkey meat, you compliment her and go for second helpings because that's the way. You're a guest and you love her and receive her hospitality. Bourdain has been the recipient of more than one bacterial stomach bug on his travels, but he bucks up and tastes the dishes wherever he goes, from Dubai to the African bush. And it's cool. His riff was a humorous scraping up and drumming down of vegans and vegetarians who, when they visit your house, turn their nose up at your grilled meats and ask for grilled peppers. He discussed getting along with folks despite the fact that you have nothing in common with them culturally, folks with whom you couldn't be more diametrically opposed. In other words as a statistic or part of a generalized group, they are THE ENEMY. He showed clips of himself breaking bread with a strict muslim Wahabist, a red neck, red state Deliverance type and a KGB hit man: each of them "the nicest guys," illustrating that we can "get along" if we put down the rhetoric. It was a refreshing point; there is nothing like exploring cultural differences in foods to tear down walls.
Answering the question about food quality
 During the question and answer session, Bourdain shared some interesting thoughts. Regarding flying (he must be frequent flyer black status) he doesn't mind turbulence; it breaks up the boredom/monotony of a fight during which he doesn't eat and after watching 3 films becomes tiresome. He laughed that he enjoys looking at the panic and terror on the faces of fellow elite passengers who think it's over and their time has come. When asked whether he wants his daughter to eat responsibly (Bourdain shares the Obamas' concerns about  American obesity; that's why he hammers Dean) Bourdain replied that food quality, eating organic and fresh is important. He relayed he is not of the type that is pushing sushi on a  three-year-old. But he proudly recalled a wonderful story of his thrill when he saw his daughter's interest when the family was dining in Paris and she admired the height of the seafood tower of clams, shrimps, scallops, mussels, etc., with two lobsters perched prettily on top. Remembering her love of the lobster Sebastian in The Little Mermaid, she cried out, "Oh Sebastian," then grabbed the top lobster and picked it clean tearing at its flesh  (as only Bourdain can gesture and mimic).

Bourdain's take on American junk food gyrations? Great answer. Make the junk food look like the food court in Thailand or other Asian nations with food stalls run by entrepreneurs where you could sample Dim Sum, or roasted goose or duck, and other treats. These would be more nutritious and fewer calories than the typical garbage slid toward us. What he was discussing is happening outside of Eatley across from Madison Square in NYC. That is a wonderful food court of more upscale fare from various restaurants in the city from seafood to deli. It's a step in the right direction, but Bourdain was discussing more exotic offerings for more reasonable prices; not corporate, not industrial, not big business, but something equivalent in other countries as street food. And he's right. Expanding the palates and intellectual curiosity of Americans just might decrease their waistlines. Quality not quantity might be the right imperative. That and an unadulterated food supply that is not rife with additives, preservatives, GE/GM (genetically modified) produce and products, pink slime hamburgers, E coli-spinach and hamburger, salmonella eggs and antibiotic fed animals... would slim all of us down.

The inimitable Bourdain listening to another question.
Bourdain is about food, quality food. It's who we are and what we are as Americans. And if we are going to help one another, we should be fit and trim, as he quipped with a sober note. You want to live next to a neighbor who will quickly come to your aid rather than one who is unable to get off the couch because he/she are trailing 50-100 pounds of fat baggage front and back and need help from you to get around.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Tony Awards Predicted By Drama Desk Award Wins

Audra McDonald accepting her award Outstanding Actress in a Musical. Brian D'Arcy James and Brooks Shields (on right)
Presenter John Larroquette being interviewed. He is currently starring in The Best Man by Gore Vidal in the role of  political candidate, William Russell
 I have enjoyed or enthusiastically enjoyed most of the plays on Broadway, Off Broadway and some Off Off Broadway shows this season. That's why I attended the 57th Annual Drama Desk Awards, held in NYC at Town Hall with Brooke Shields and Brian D'Arcy James hosting the streamed live event. As part of her opening remarks, Shields expressed her enthusiasm that the ceremony wouldn't have any commercials.

Laila Roberts (one of the cast who received a special ensemble award for Sweet and Sad) and playwright Kenneth Lonergan whose hysterical and timely production of Medieval Play is currently at the Signature Theater
Audience members smiled and chortled with her in response. Not only would the show be able to move like clockwork seamlessly, holding the attention of the audience and keeping their suspense up. The length would be reasonable. And because there were no interruptions, liability for mishaps and lurid sponsors to deal with, this represented an intimate gathering of theater lovers, whether past winners, presenters, nominees, theater reviewers or family of nominees. We were there to celebrate the majesty of live performance. There is nothing like it under the sun and there is nothing like it in the English speaking world save in New York City.

The particularly wonderful concept about this ceremony is that it is the only award event that honors all tiers of Broadway theater; not only super commercial theater that is costing egregious amounts of debt to mount and recoup, but also theater off the "Great White Way," held in comparatively tiny venues, even including theater that is non-profit and heavily granted, subsidized and funded with outside gifting.

Christopher Ashley, Director of Leap of Faith which was forced to close

 It is because the Drama Desk Awards, formed in 1949 by a group of New York theater critics, editors, reporters and publishers do include unique Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway theater, that it is a poor theater cousin of the 66th Annual Tony's.  Unless a miracle happens and those in the NYC theater, film and TV community and New York Tech community really get behind all venues of NYC theater, the Drama Desks will never garner the glamor and the commercial support that the glitzy Tonys will bring this Sunday.

The Tonys are spectacle and since the show will last for hours and bore the hell out of the social media set who will be mobile texting, tweeting, uploading, watching films and playing videos during the commercial breaks AND the show, producers are forced to "attempt to compete" with the only other show with the like format watched by millions of average Americans who might tune in, the Oscars. And we know how boring the Oscar show has become. So in this regard, the Drama Desks are one up on the Tonys and Oscars. It is intimate. Waiting outside to get in, you feel at home standing next to Kevin Spacey, Bernadette Peters or Kelli O'Hara, and you don't have to suffer the foolishness of advertisers. And neither do the celebrities in the entertainment communities, most of whom eschew the adulterated products sold by the industrial food complex and Big Pharma whose companies mostly advertise on such shows. (They avoid highly chemicalized foods and products not wanting to sacrifice their bodies, youthfulness and careers since the stuff is poison and unhealthful.)

How will the Tony TV watching audience be drawn in? High profile stars like nominated Ricky Martin, will be performing a number from Evita where he is currently starring as Che, and Raul Esparza, will be performing a song from Leap of Faith, a show he starred in that barely ran and was pecked by critics like chickens on a blood spot. And they will be drawn to see the fashions and hear the personages dewy comments. The presenter's list is growing and includes Tyler Perry, Nick Jonas, Amanda Seyfried, Paul Rudd, Ellen Barkin, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Candice Bergen, Christopher Plummer, James Marsden, Mandy Patinkin and Sheryl Crow. "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, last year's award winners for their hit musical "The Book of Mormon" will bestow awards after sharing their spot on humorous perceptions.

The show airs on CBS, at 8:00 pm, and will be hosted by the versatile and irrepressible Neil Patrick Harris who will "WOW" us with his performance which will have to top last year's hysterical opening number, "Broadway Isn't Just for Gays Anymore."  Last year he was surprising and magnetic and it won't be easy to knock down this comparison uploaded to Youtube.

Were Sunday night's Drama Desk wins a foretaste of who will win the Tony's? Perhaps with regard to the musical portion, however, the categories differed because of the Off-Broadway inclusions. For best play, Pulitzer Prize winning Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris is slated as a favorite amongst the other plays a few notches ranking ( click here to see) above Other Desert Cities. The Drama Desk panel didn't even nominate Clybourne Park or Other Desert Cities. Instead, Tribes, an Off-Broadway production won the Drama Desk for Outstanding Play. In fact that was the only Off-Broadway production that won an award. The brilliant BAM production Richard III (nominated for Outstanding Revival) and starring nominated Kevin Spacey (Outstanding Actor in a Play) who showed up for interviews at Town Hall was cold shouldered. It wasn't even nominated for a Tony, talk about a snub!

For Outstanding Revival of a Play, the incredible Death of a Salesman won the Drama Desk and Mike Nichols won for Outstanding Direction. Though The Best Man was superb, Death of a Salesman was better; there was no comparison perhaps because of the play's intense humanity and its electric currency trending resonant themes for today. Even a car park attendant on 46th street last Wednesday, May 30th (I saw the play a second time; first time I saw ot early in the  run.) told me Death was the best play on Broadway. Maybe he had already placed his bets. My guess is he had heard his customers' commentary. Odds in favor of a Salesman Tony win are currently at 74%. We'll see how canny the parking lot attendant is.

Will Follies beat out The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess? Follies took the Drama Desk award for Outstanding Musical Revival and most likely will again Tony night. The odds favor Follies by 66 percent. But Porgy and Bess was rewarded when Audra McDonald won for her portrayal as Bess beating out Bernadette Peters Follies star for the Drama Desk. Peters is not nominated for a Tony. Audra McDonald will most likely receive the Tony for a phenomenal performance, and 69 percent of the experts agree on this.

Finally, there are no surprises that Once won the Drama Desk for Outstanding Musical, since the building momentum has been moving with intensity for the show. It has already won the Outer Critic's Circle and the Drama League award. If the producers are canvassing support in these next few days, it may exceed support for Newsies which is 49 percent the favorite over 41 percent for Once.

The Drama Desk for Outstanding Actor in a Play went to James Corden for his hysterically funny performance in One Man, Two Guvnors and not Philip Seymour Hoffman for Death of a Salesman or Kevin Spacey for Richard III. Corden's acceptance speech was one of the most comedic I've heard in a long while and echoed the brilliance of his exuberant performance in One Man... He commented that he appreciated the efforts of his significant other, his Baby Mama who had recently given birth and was currently (as a result of the strenuous demands of the role) taking care of two babies. In acknowledging the producers and director and others, he noted that he was thanking those who hadn't attended the ceremony. Apparently they were in other parts of the globe. He quipped, ah, "Fuck 'em."
James Corden making acceptance remarks; Outstanding Actor in a Play for One Man, Two Guvnors
 As marvelous as Corden was this win was a surprise, an upset. I would have preferred to see Spacey pitted against Hoffman in roles of equal comparison, though Richard III is a history with tragic elements. Certainly, both require a larger than life talent to occupy. Willy Loman and Richard III if acted with elegance and magnificence as both were by Hoffman and Spacey can translate into usable material to endow our own lives with. I walked away from both productions feeling the sadness of mankind's follies and abysses. So to categorize play without differentiating between something as simplistic as comedy/tragedy, which our forebears, the Greeks made sure to differentiate because the purposes of both genres were so different, seems downright ridiculous and demeaning to a celebration of theater. That "convenience" is unworthy of the actors and their performances and it belittles James Corden's different kind of brilliance as well.
Kevin Spacey posing with friends.
The roles, comedy, modern day tragedy and history/tragedy must not be drawn in the same breath. They cannot be compared in terms of acting depth and soul requirements. Much of Corden's role depended upon timing, the clever execution of slapstick and the facile breakdown of the fourth wall. Both Richard III and Death, show the onging and historic spiral of a human being plummeting deep into the abyss. The acting progression/declension is not to be underestimated. It requires breadth to convey the electricity of compelling humanity.  In the case of Richard III, for Spacey to convey Richard III's despicable human traits charmingly is "NO JOKE." How easy it would have been for him to "be" evil instead of "be" Richard; great temperance is required.
Kevin Spacey greeting old friends

Kevin Spacey during interview
If the Drama Desks, the Tonys and other theater awards, the Oliver, the Louise Lortell, the Obie are to be meaningful and significant ceremonies in conveying and promoting NYC theater tradition which they cannot help but do, this consideration of doing the expedient and convenient IS A TURN OFF. Fans have been turned off. And we are your greatest lovers and supporters. For the sake of sponsors, promoters and boards of these created award ceremonies that are often politically motivated, GIVE US A BREAK. Designate properly, categorize astutely, recognize when there are errors. Political exigency is worthwhile to a point, except when it kills the very thing you wish to promote.

It is always the problem of award ceremonies. Politics are involved. Kevin Spacey is not only a known quantity, he is an absolutely brilliant performer who has worked tirelessly for theater, melding British and American theater in The Bridge Project, the first of its kind. He has been generous in helping others get their start in theater. He is my vote for a Renaissance man of the industry, clever, ingenious, down to earth, an everyman, yet a star. And that is why he doesn't need accolades; he has received many. What me worry about affirmation, Kevin? No. And I echo the sentiments about Hoffman who is iconic in film and onstage, versatile, amazing, entrancing to watch because he is moment to moment, unique, incomparable. He makes the damn thing look easy, and he too, has won numerous awards and contributed greatly to theater, joining the LAByrinth Theater Company in 1995 where he has directed and promoted NYC theater.

Both Hoffman and Spacey rate as phenomena. And that might be why Cordon, a new kid on the American Broadway block, and a very funny, known Brit comedic genius (Americans tend to venerate Brits), will walk away with the Tony. To my mind, he shouldn't.