Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review for THE MOST BEAUTIFUL ROOM IN NEW YORK at Long Wharf Theatre
Through May 28th (photos below by T. Charles Erickson)
Humans see what they want to see. ― Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief
After 30 years in the media business and hundreds of reviews and interviews later, I must say that this is one of the most difficult reviews I have ever written. I know my psychotherapist, journalist, professor, and co-reviewer wife will cringe when I say this (since I am definitely impinging on her territory), but when I think of The Most Beautiful Room in New York, Rene Descartes’s mind-body dualism comes to mind (pun intended). For those of you who don’t live with a professor of psychology, Descartes theorized that the mind and body are two separate and distinct things, even though they are part of the same body. Things that make you go hmmmm…
How now can I possibly extrapolate from his theory and apply it to this review and actually make it make sense? I probably won’t, but I’ll try my best.
Beautiful Room can be seen on two very distinct levels. The first is purely escapist entertainment. It’s a lovely, engaging musical ditty on the surface with some colorful characters and enchanting moments. I must confess that not all of the songs worked for me despite the fact that they were penned by composer icon David Shire. (I kept thinking I am sitting in the same audience with the man who scored films like The Conversation and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.) And maybe it could have been edited a bit (a film editor once told me that plays and films must be cut until they bleed). Nevertheless, I enjoyed it as a lark.
But then I thought, am I selling Adam Gopnik, the playwright, short and falling in line with the other critics who are hungering for more? (Sorry, I’m shameless). Or could it be that Beautiful Room works on a much deeper level? The best pedagogical pieces sugar-coat things so they are easy to swallow and smooth going down. Am I trying to find depth in still waters where none exists? Where are Woody Allen and Marshall McLuhan when you need them? There’s that great scene in Annie Hall when Mr. Allen pulls McLuhan from behind a movie poster to shut down a pompous, pontificating bloviator in the line waiting to go into the movie. Am I the bloviator here? Don’t answer that – yet.
Let’s look at the plot. David, an old school, idealistic cook and owner of a Manhattan restaurant struggles to hold onto the past, tradition, his wife, and children in a rapidly changing, material world. At the other end of the spectrum is Sergio, successful entrepreneur and admitted hedonist and advocate of the “no excuses” culture and who grabs life by the cojones, letting the chips fall where they may.
Then I thought about how this theme – old school versus maverick innovation – the perpetual conundrum of what happens when an irresistible force hits an unmovable object – has manifested itself throughout history and the arts. More importantly, it is still so relevant to today – maybe more so than ever before. Perhaps some members of the audience (and critics) concentrated too much on how the restaurant was run, whether the food preparation was realistic and whether David was dicing an onion correctly. (Let’s face it, nothing can come close the scene in the play The River when Hugh Jackman meticulously cleans and filets a fish for twenty-five exhaustingly tedious minutes.) The restaurant was just a metaphorical vehicle to express the significant thematic elements. Watching Beautiful Room reminded me very much of the plot and themes of Other People’s Money – a story involving the direct clash of stubborn old school ways of doing things versus modern adaptation to survive in an ever-changing world. To a lesser extent, the same theme is expressed in the more recent Sex with Strangers where traditional publishing clashes with self-publication and (gulp) blogs.
And then there is the whole Faust theme. How much does one have to sacrifice in order to survive today? Everything has a price tag and we all have to make compromises. But when do you reach the level of getting what you want only to lose your soul?
I love Damn Yankees and damn, if Constantine’s portrayal of Sergio wasn’t a great homage to the Devil himself. No, not like Dante’s three-headed monstrous depiction of Satan in Inferno, but an engaging, bad-boy rapscallion who you just love to hate – well, maybe dislike – well, maybe like a lot. Constantine’s portrayal was masterful and reminded me of the Tony Award-performance of Ray Walston as Satan on stage and in the 1956 film version of Damn Yankees. He also channeled another Ray (Wise) who played the charmingly devilish Evil One in the short-lived, but ingeniously creative TV show Reaper. Like Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice, Constantine wasn’t on stage the entire time, but when he did come on, he lit up the boards with his charisma and commanding presence.
Matt Bogart as David played the perfect foil to Constantine’s Sergio. Tall, dark, and handsome, with a strong moral compass. The kind of guy I hope my sixteen-year-old daughter brings home someday – despite his at times over-the-top idealism and naivete about the realities of the business world. He also must get the award for being the eleventh-hour Hail Mary replacement to the actor previously cast in the part. (The name of the actor was whited out in the program’s cast list; I broke my thumbnail trying to scrape it off to see who it was.)
The acting from the rest of the experienced cast was top-notch. A special shout-out must go to Mark Nelson whose performance as the crotchety but sagacious Gabe gave Constantine a run for his money and stole more scenes than Ty Cobb stole bases.
The play was originally titled Table and I could see why. There was an opening song about a table, the name of the restaurant was Table and Dave refers to his “table” as his foundation. The theatre was even honoring old tickets that had Table as the title. Even though there is a song titled, “The Most Beautiful Room in New York,” I don’t know why the name was changed. With all due respect Mr. Gopnik, I would switch it back. Think of how much more you can tweet with a short title like Table!
Have I read too much into the play? Are Woody Allen and Adam Gopnik going to confront me at the next play I review? (That actually would be very cool.) Call me a sentimentalist, an incurable romantic (something which my wife routinely denies), but I thoroughly enjoyed The Most Beautiful Room in New York. And I love happy endings. In fact, I still get chills when I watch Elvis Presley sing “Happy Ending” at the end of It Happened at the World’s Fair.
It may not be an obvious parallel for some, but for insiders, the entertainment business and the restaurant business share a lot of commonalities. In each, you slip into your designated role and you must adapt to a new audience at every “performance.” You then put on a pleasing show in an effort to both tantalize and satisfy your patrons, with the definitive goal to deliver a delightful, delectable, finely-crafted confection that you hope will be well rewarded – in either applause or a sizeable tip! With your fellow colleagues you’ll find camaraderie, cooperation, and community as well as stress, setbacks, and sticky situations. And how do I know all of this? While I’ve worn many hats at different times in my life, among them have been in the restaurant business and the entertainment business, both of which I have enjoyed.
So it was with great anticipation that I attended Long Wharf Theatre’s newest indulgence, the world premiere of The Most Beautiful Room in New York, a scrumptious theatrical morsel with music by David Shire, book and lyrics by Adam Gopnick, and directed by Long Wharf’s own Gordon Edelstein. Dubbed “A new musical about food and family,” Beautiful Room also gave a spotlight to the ever-growing and here-to-stay industry of food TV and its colorful, charismatic celebrity chefs. I couldn’t wait to experience the melding of the flavors of both businesses (too bad there wasn’t smell-o-vision!).
David (Matt Bogart) is a principled man – and his two loves, food and family (not necessarily in that order) are his top priorities. But when his skyrocketing NYC lease and the tough competition for customers’ gastronomic satiation puts his farm-to-table restaurant, Table, in the too-high heat of the grill, he needs to pull it from the lapping flames and come up with a plan. Any plan that is – but while he’s a master in the kitchen, frankly, he’s not very good at guess what? Planning. That’s what he usually relies on his wife, front-of-the-house manager extraordinaire Claire (Anastasia Barzee), to handle. But they are out of ideas, money, and will soon be out on the street when they not only lose their little bistro, but also the upstairs apartment they share with their two children, Bix (Tyler Jones) and Kate (Sawyer Niehaus). With nowhere else to turn, they consider that their efforts to stay alive might require compromising those weighty principles and revisiting the past – and ultimately selling David’s soul to the proverbial devil.
Enter the Prince of Darkness, who takes the form of superstar chef and restaurant chain mogul Sergio (Constantine Maroulis), whose smarm and charm make your teeth itch like a sugary dessert overload – despite his major bad boy appeal. Sergio and his equally slimy sidekick Gabe (Allan K. Washington) along with Sergio’s beautiful but rude Russian girlfriend Natasha (Anne Horak) run slipshod over not only David and Claire’s Table, but also the neighboring Union Square farmer’s market and its stand owners who are at risk of losing their livelihood as well.
What’s a man to do?
He gets some sage words of advice in Bensonhurst over a cup of espresso and a simple slice (er, small individual pizza pie) from set-in-his-ways Carlo (Mark Nelson), an anarchist shop owner (and possibly a thief?) who rebels against the hipster era, foodie-ism, and cell phones. His daughter, Anna (Krystina Alabado), disagrees with her pop’s philosophies and finds a like-mind and more than a friend in young entrepreneurial Bix.
How it all pans out for all of them is like creating one of those impossible food items – take a stubborn soufflé or some bearish Béarnaise – you add all the necessary ingredients, set the timer, and hope for the best.
Each of the leads does a terrific job bringing their characters to life and all of the vocals in Beautiful Room are truly top-notch. Bogart is the believable and bumbling husband, father, and business owner (but in this former server’s experience, not quite temperamental enough as many chefs can be!). Barzee is lovely as his steady right-arm but she begins to buckle not only under the pressure cooker of the financial mess, but also the likes of the roguish and ruthless Sergio – especially when more skeletons fall out of the closet. Maroulis couldn’t have been more perfectly cast as Sergio – narcissistic, egocentric, and self-serving but with possibly an ever-so slim layer of sensitivity beneath; and his disarming smile makes even this unlikeable guy likeable. Nelson provides excellent comic relief as the grumbling, dough-tossing dinosaur who somehow has managed to stay afloat while the restaurant world – and countless pizza chains – bloom all around him.
Youth notwithstanding, there’s some incredible talent in the offspring of the restauranteurs – Jones, Niehaus, and Alabado are pure delight and clearly have a strong future in the theatre. The secondary characters are far from side dishes – and they all bring a pop to the stage – Washington not only as Gabe and dance captain, but also as Irwin who works at the farm stand along with Phoebe, played by Darlesia Cearcy, a powerhouse vocalist; Gloria, Phoebe’s wife, a terrific Danielle Ferland; Gio, an excellent Ryan Duncan and his adorable wife, Franca, played by Horak (who also is the not-nice Natasha).
Kudos to the many who contributed to the crafting of the beautiful production, including John Carrafa for musical staging; John McDaniel as musical director and supervisor as well as for additional musical arrangements; Jonathan Tunick for orchestration; Michael Yeargan for exquisite set design; Jess Goldstein for costume design; Christopher Akerlind for lighting design; Keith Caggiano for sound design; Jesse Kissel as associate music director; Jenn Rapp as associate choreographer; Linda Marvel as production stage manager; Amy Patricia Stern as assistant stage manager; and Calleri Casting. Excellent musical accompaniment provided by McDaniel as conductor and on keyboards; Kissel also on keys; Dan Duncan on trumpet; Tim Moran and Andrew Studenski on reeds; Dave Daddario on string bass/electric; Ed Fast on drums/percussion; Katharine Edmonds as copyist; Randy Cohen & Jeremy King, Randy Cohen Keyboards, LLC as keyboard programmers; and Nancy Brown as musician contractor.
The story, like a meal, is indeed satisfying. It’s flavorful, but in this reviewer’s opinion, could use just a little more kick. The well-sung songs carry the story, but could benefit from a sprinkle more seasoning for flavor – and overall the dish could stay in the oven just a bit longer to set. As with many new productions, a bit of tweaking is necessary until you perfect the recipe, but it’s got all the right ingredients; pair it with a glass of wine (from the lobby bar) and you’ll be in for a wonderful epicurean (I mean theatrical) experience! (Insert apologies here for the exceptional use of cooking metaphors – too many years in the restaurant business and something of an amateur chef, I just couldn’t help myself!)