New York Culture: Fall's Top Picks

Courtesy Sotheby’s

Five of New York’s top cultural critics and writers to offer up their recommendations.

Tis the season for gridlock in Manhattan. And not just the dense traffic of visitors coming to shop on Fifth Avenue, have brunch at Balthazar and go skating in Rockefeller Center but cultural gridlock. There’s so much to see and do—so much not to miss. Whether your fancy is a madcap matinée with women on the verge or an operatic evening of politics and romance, bidding for precious handmade toys or exploring the limits of abstraction with hard-charging modern painters, it can help to have a little guidance navigating the choices. And who better to ask than the experts? In this special preview, DEPARTURES enlisted five of New York’s top cultural critics and writers to offer up their recommendations and weigh in on some of the biggest late-autumn events in the city. Have your calendar at the ready.

Michael Riedel on Theater

Move over, boys. With apologies to Al Pacino, Jeffrey Wright, Brendan Fraser and Paul Reubens (yes, Pee-wee Herman’s back), it’s the ladies who rule the Broadway stage at the end of 2010, says New York Post theater critic Michael Riedel. Here, five shows he’s got his eye on.

Sure to be electric chic, the new musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, based on Pedro Almo-dovar’s 1988 movie, boasts three A-list leading ladies—the hilarious Sherie Rene Scott, the gorgeous Laura Benanti and the legendary Patti LuPone. With a line-up like that, costar Brian Stokes Mitchell is going to have to fight for every scrap of stage. Opens at the Belasco Theatre November 4.

The great director Julie Taymor, who turned Disney’s The Lion King into the most expensive hit puppet show ever, is tackling another cartoon-inspired spectacle, the $60 million musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The show, with a score by Bono and The Edge, has been in financial turmoil for a year. But the money’s now in place, and Taymor (who also has a film, The Tempest, opening in December) is spending it freely. If the show’s not a smash, it’ll surely become the biggest financial disaster in Broadway history. Opens at the Foxwoods Theater December 21.

Vanessa Redgrave, who has a strong claim to being the greatest living stage actress, returns to Broadway in a revival of Driving Miss Daisy. This nice little play is hardly the epic Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for which Redgrave won a Tony in 2003. But she’s the kind of actress who raises the ho-hum to the must-see. James Earl Jones costars as Miss Daisy’s long-serving chauffeur. Opens at the Golden Theatre October 25.

It may be a testosterone-heavy show, but The Scottsboro Boys, a musical based on the 1931 trial of nine black men falsely accused of rape, is helmed by Susan Stroman, who’s back in top form after soaring with The Producers and then crashing with Young Frankenstein. Using just chairs, tambourines and a few platforms, Stroman creates trains, courtrooms and jail cells for the production, which has undergone some tweaks for its transfer to Broadway. It was the last show written by John Kander and Fred Ebb (who died in 2004), and the songs are as good as anything in Cabaret or Chicago. Opens at the Lyceum Theatre October 31.

Following a successful Shakespeare in the Park run this summer, The Merchant of Venice comes to Broadway with Pacino in his wrenching performance as Shylock. By play’s end, he’s a shattered man, undone by a pair of principled, razor-sharp women, of course—his daughter, Jessica (Heather Lind), and Portia (played by the terrific Lily Rabe). Opens at the Broadhurst Theatre November 7.

Hoarding Nuts

The New York City Ballet’s performances of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker are a holiday staple at Lincoln Center (lincolncenter.org). And this year the Brooklyn Academy of Music has a Nutcracker double bill: a new American Ballet Theatre production by Alexei Ratmansky as well as Mark Morris’s popular reinterpretation, The Hard Nut (bam.org).

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Kurt Andersen on Collectible Toys

One week before Christmas, Sotheby’s will be dispensing some extraordinary toys for lucky girls and boys—selling, that is, and for very adult prices. On December 17 the auction house will offer thousands of antique toy soldiers, boats and games from the distinguished collection amassed by the late Malcolm Forbes and his sons. The sale is expected to bring as much as $5 million. Channeling his inner kid, Kurt Andersen, the host of public radio’s weekly Studio 360 and a novelist (most recently of the bestseller Heyday), talks about which objects are on his wish list.

Though I don’t collect old toys myself, I do have a fascination with these things,” Andersen says, noting that toys turn up, not insignificantly, in both of his novels. “As a kid I played with the crappy plastic army toys that everybody my age played with. And once, when I was about seven, we took a trip to Maine and I bought—for what was a lot of money for that age, a couple of bucks—a basically useless wooden boat that I still have. But I never owned a remote-controlled aircraft or motorized boat, and I think my frustrated inner 12-year-old boy always wanted that.”

The star lot of the Forbes sale at Sotheby’s is a four-foot-long, cast-iron, gas-powered replica of a 19th-century armored gunboat, made in France in the 19th century and nicknamed “Andre the Giant” (estimate $200,000 to $300,000). “The nautical part of the Forbes collection is awesome,” says Andersen. “These are not tiny little things—they’re big, and they look really cool.” He says he’s especially enamored of the circa-1912 Märklin replica of the Lusitania, sunk by a German submarine in 1915. “The sort of tragic aspect of the Lusitania, frankly, perversely, appeals to me,” says Andersen.

Another thing he says he’d love to own is the earliest surviving Monopoly game handmade by Charles Darrow, a circular version from 1933 ($60,000 to $80,000). “You wish they’d kept the circular version around,” says Andersen. “And of course it’s funny that Malcolm Forbes owned a Monopoly game created in the depths of the Great Depression.”

While some of the collection’s highlights are certainly expensive—a group of 40 medieval mounted knights, handmade in Britain from the 1930s to the 1950s by Richard Courtenay, is expected to go for as much as $25,000—the estimates for many pieces are quite modest. Says Andersen, “I’d rather have the entire Forbes collection than a minor Damien Hirst.”

The Forbes collection of antique toys remains on view at the Forbes Galleries (forbesgalleries.com) before moving to Sotheby’s for a weeklong exhibition leading up to the auction on December 17 (sothebys.com).

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Frank Bruni on Dinner and a Movie

With the holidays coming, moviegoers can look forward to a promising feast of both splashy crowd pleasers and artistically ambitious films being hustled into theaters before the Oscars deadline. Former New York Times restaurant critic and movie enthusiast Frank Bruni offers up one buzzy new restaurant and two (very different) films—perfect pairings for a classic night out in the city.

I can’t think of any time better than late autumn—and I can’t think of many autumns better than this one—for dinner and a movie. Or, in my case, a movie and dinner. That’s the order I prefer, lest I doze off at the multiplex, my belly full, my brain boozy.

When it comes to serious films, I’m especially curious about The Fighter, a biopic about an underdog welterweight named “Irish” Micky Ward directed by David O. Russell, whose previous movies include I ? Huckabees. What happens when someone as offbeat as Russell interprets a genre as hoary as the against-all-odds boxing story? That intrigues me, as does the cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams and, in the lead, Mark Wahlberg, who spent years not only campaigning to get this movie made but also physically training for it.

I’m just as eager to see Burlesque because of its casting: Christina Aguilera meets Cher! The younger pop goddess plays an aspiring performer; the older pop goddess is the jaded empress of the club in which she performs. It sounds like Cabaret, A Chorus Line and All About Eve rolled into one, and even if it’s ghastly, it might well be Showgirls ghastly, which means its own kind of great.

Burlesque may scream for Twizzlers (or maybe Hot Tamales), but I’ll be saving room for an indulgent dinner afterward—at chef Andrew Carmellini’s new SoHo restaurant, The Dutch. Carmellini has been in my sights for years, starting with an impeccable meal he cooked for me when he was at Café Boulud. He’s now at Locanda Verde, in TriBeCa, which many of his fans don’t believe comes close to exhausting his talents. What’s left over he can lavish on the diverse American menu at his new place, which promises everything from upscale fried chicken to haute pierogi. Both sound like the perfect nourishment for a post-movie analysis of Aguilera’s acting chops.

Burlesque releases on November 2 and The Fighter on December 10. Carmellini’s restaurant, The Dutch, is slated to open in mid-November.

Leonardo Live

British filmmaker Peter Greenaway’s Last Supper—the best-known of his whiz-bang animations of Old Masters—is coming to the Park Avenue Armory. Originally staged (controversially) in the Milan refectory where Leonardo’s fresco resides, the traveling version uses a full-scale replica of that space, plus digital projections, holograms, and an operatic soundtrack create a 40-minute immersive experience. December 2 to January 6, 2011; armoryonpark.org.

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Alex Ross on Opera

The Peter Gelb era at the Metropolitan Opera hit full stride last season, the first almost entirely planned by him—with some critical hits but also a few consensus missteps. A great deal is riding on Robert Lepage’s much-anticipated (and very costly) “Ring Cycle,” the first installment of which—Das Rheingold with Bryn Terfel as Wotan—premiered just after this issue went to press. Alex Ross, the New Yorker music critic whose book Listen to This was recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, discusses Gelb, the new Met and upcoming highlights.

Peter Gelb is shaking off the cobwebs at the Met,” says Ross. “He clearly wants to modernize the house, bring in contemporary theater values, reduce the perceived stuffiness and traditionalism and make it a bit more glamorous as well as, hopefully, theatrically vibrant.” Ross notes that there’s a big difference between how opera is produced in Europe versus here in America. “There are quite crazy things that happen on European opera stages these days,” he says. “Gelb is trying to find directors who take some risks and are maybe even provocative but who will not completely bewilder the traditional opera-going audience.”

Enter Nicholas Hytner, whose production of Verdi’s Don Carlo is making its Met debut, with Roberto Alagna in the title role, after premiering at London’s Royal Opera in 2008–09. “He is a director who seems to have a very good theater sense, and it’s a strong cast,” says Ross. “It’s an extraordinary opera, one of Verdi’s masterpieces. In addition to being a great political opera, it’s also about religion—both incredibly charged subjects. It gets very dark. It’s one of these operas that gives you a kind of deep chill because you realize how little things change and how we’re struggling with the same profound problems. And it’s also a great love story.”

Though it doesn’t arrive until early next year, another Met production Ross is looking forward to is Nixon in China, by John Adams. “It premiered in 1987, has played all over the world and is recognized as one of the greatest operas written by an American composer, but it has never played in Manhattan,” he says, noting that, like Don Carlo, it mixes romance and politics. “Peter Sellars is an extraordinary director who has often done very provocative things and really pulled them off,” says Ross. “It’s also his first time at the Met, which is pretty shocking for someone who’s had such an illustrious career.”

Don Carlo premieres at the Metropolitan Opera on November 22 and Nixon in China on February 2, 2011; metoperafamily.org.

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Michael Kimmelman on Modern Art

For its big fall blockbuster, the Museum of Modern Art turned inward, training the spotlight on its singular collection of epoch-defining Abstract Expressionist works from the forties to the early sixties. Sculpture, photographs and archival material accompany paintings by a full roster of New York School heavy hitters—Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline and, of course, Jackson Pollock, who gets an entire room. Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for The New York Times, weighs in on our enduring obsession with the modern maverick.

More than half a century after he died, Pollock remains the most polarizing figure in American art,” says Kimmelman, “the most radical of all modern painters, inexplicable to those who fail to grasp abstraction, the go-to guy in philistine arguments over whether ‘my kid could do that.’ This is because Pollock, like almost no one else in history, invented a genuinely new way of painting, putting unstretched canvases on the floor, then dripping, splattering, splashing paint onto them, using brushes but also sticks and paint cans with holes in them, stalking the canvas, letting gravity become a factor.”

Complex thickets of paint, without a center and purely abstract, these “drip” paintings are now classics of 20th-century American art. Yet Pollock, Kimmelman notes, “had virtually no followers among painters. De Kooning had millions of them, who borrowed one or another aspect of his style. But Pollock was so distinct he almost precluded imitation. I say ‘almost’ because his followers have included sculptors and performance artists, artists shaped by watching the films of him dancing around his canvases, playing to the camera, making art in the instant.”

Perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay to works like Pollock’s magisterial Number 1A, 1948 is that they continue to look as fresh and daring as they did when they first arrived at MoMA. “A miracle of dancing lines and delicacy, it’s the linchpin of the museum’s postwar collection, as Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon is for prewar art,” says Kimmelman. “It’s a work that I, like so many New Yorkers, grew up with, and to me it always represented possibility, openness. Even as a boy, I saw it as romantic and at the same time tough. Very New York, in other words.”

“Abstract Expressionist New York” is on view at MoMA through April 25, 2011; moma.org.

Brainy Pop

Is John Baldessari the most influential artist in America? The California conceptualist has taught artists from David Salle to Elliott Hundley and inspired generations with his works combining painting and photography in wry, playful, profound ways. A retrospective of his five-decade career is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 9, 2011; metmuseum.org.