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A Pair of Theater of the Ridiculous Chestnuts, Roasted Anew

Back in 1965, with Warhol’s Factory on the rise and downtown Manhattan awash in avant-garde experimentation, a campy subgenre called the Theater of the Ridiculous was born. “We have passed beyond the absurd; our position is absolutely preposterous,” declared one of its founders, Ronald Tavel, whose plays The Life of Juanita Castro and Kitchenette are now being revived at Theater for the New City in a double bill entitled Two by Tavel. Contemplating Tavel’s idiosyncratic scenarios — rife with gender-bending antics and existential weirdness — it’s easy to imagine why Warhol became a fan.

But it takes more than nostalgia to make these plays exciting today. Directed by Theater of the Ridiculous veteran Norman Glick (with Jorge Acosta), and starring original Ridiculous performers including Ruby Lynn Reyner, the pieces depict (respectively) surreal doings of the Castro clan and an encounter between two odd couples in a kitchen with a portable toilet. Both feature slapstick, wacky accents, and colorful makeshift scenery.

Although the performers clearly have fun, the audience doesn’t. What once must have seemed excitingly impromptu now looks sloppy, and what might have read as daring parody appears half-baked. Wild gesticulation and effortful grimacing replace acting and
directing choices. These plays earned their place in the annals of the American avant-garde, but even theatrical keepsakes benefit from being rehearsed.

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EATING AROUND

If you’re not still convalescing after a grand gorge on turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and generalized Americana, then shake yourself out of the food coma and head out to Big Onion’s Annual Post-Thanksgiving Multi-Ethnic Eating Tour. For over two decades the history-focused tour group has been hosting this culinary romp across Chinatown, Little Italy, and the Jewish Lower East Side. Neighborhood-savvy guides lead the group to culturally significant markets and stores for “noshing” stops along the way — don’t expect trendy restaurants here. Rather, gain an understanding of the ethnic groups that once lent downtown Manhattan’s neighborhoods their unique character, back before “character” was replaced with “American Apparel.” We recently named Big Onion Tours “Best Place to Take Out-of-Town Guests” in our Best of NYC issue, and with good reason: Even the most jaded locals enjoy these informative saunters.

Fri., Nov. 28, 11 a.m. & 2 p.m., 2014

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GOVERNED BY BEAUTY

As autumn approaches, visitors of Governors Island edge away from the sufficiently partied-on lawns and gather inside its abandoned military barracks; on September weekends, at least. Artist-run nonprofit 4heads presents the
7th Annual Governors Island Art Fair, which opens today and features 100 different rooms of painting, photography, sculpture, installation, video, and sound art, chosen from a multitude of proposals received from artists around the globe. Last year, an exhibit titled “Jeff Koons Must Die” featured a 25-cent video game in which the player had to shoot down various artworks while being chased by museum
security. So: Expect the subversive. The lawns are hardly deserted — live music, large-scale sculptures, and food and drinks are ripe for the relishing, as are views of downtown Manhattan and Liberty Island that never, ever get boring. Don’t let summer’s end stop you from spending $2 on the city’s best commute.

Saturdays, Sundays, 11 a.m. Starts: Sept. 6. Continues through Sept. 28, 2014

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THE ORIGINAL

Millions of immigrants came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, but who was the first? A couple of years ago, after researching records from the Netherlands, scholars at the Dominican Studies Institute at CUNY City College identified the first immigrant to New York City. His name was Juan Rodriguez, a sailor turned merchant who arrived in 1643 in downtown Manhattan from his home on the island now known as the Dominican Republic. Director Maija Garcia presents I Am New York: Juan Rodriguez, a new work of theater that imagines the story of an unsung hero of mixed race who defended his freedom to live in this incredible city.

Wed., May 28, noon, 2014

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Don Peyote Should Remember Nobody Likes to Listen to Someone Ramble While High

Here are some things that happen in Don Peyote: A badly animated CG tidal wave engulfs downtown Manhattan. Anne Hathaway performs martial arts in patent-leather pants. An elaborate midday orgy is interrupted by a murder-suicide. Speed Levitch hotboxes a mental asylum’s supply closet. Abel Ferrara curses out a fare as a cabbie in a fur-lined trapper hat. The hero of the picture, Warren Allman (Dan Fogler), launches spontaneously into the choreographed song and dance of a full-blown musical number — twice. It’s hardly unusual for a film to feature dream sequences.

Don Peyote takes the convention one step further: The film is nothing but dreams. Or perhaps hallucinations. Fogler, who co-wrote and co-directed over the course of several years with Michael Canzoniero, followed what he has described as an organic filmmaking process.

The strategy charges the work with an appealing spontaneity — you feel as if, at any moment, anything could happen. The problem is, seemingly everything does. We first meet Warren enjoying the somnambulant torpor of an early morning joint, and it isn’t long before he’s graduated to heavier indulgences, under whose influences he grows increasingly delusional.

The further Warren recedes into fantasy, the more incomprehensible the film becomes, and by its third act, Don Peyote has abandoned any pretense of telling a coherent story. At its best, this descent into madness plays out like a millennial stoner’s take on Jacob’s Ladder.

More often, it recalls a sobering truth: Nobody likes listening to someone ramble while high.

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Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same

Its special effects limited to interplanetary craft made of foil takeout containers, Madeleine Olnek’s lo-fi divertissement proves to be more than just a jokey title. Three lavender-leaning extraterrestrials from the planet Zots, where too many “big feelings” damage the ozone, are sent to Earth to have their hearts broken, thus depleting themselves of the atmosphere-destroying emotions. With their bald heads, half-funnel collars, form-fitting tracksuits, and clipped, monotone voices, the trio wouldn’t be out of place in a Curve magazine spread from 1995 or onstage at P.S. 122. Alighting in downtown Manhattan, two of the Zotsians fall in love with each other, while Zoinx (Susan Ziegler) becomes attached to earthling Jane (Lisa Haas), a bulky stationery-store employee. The played-out scenarios in Olnek’s first feature, such as Jane’s sessions with her therapist, are soon outnumbered by inspired silliness, like tears shed over a revolving dessert tray in a diner. More satisfyingly incongruous—and slyly subversive—exchanges take place between two black-suited agents, played by Dennis Davis and Alex Karpovsky, as they track the intergalactic sapphists’ movements. The film’s best joke, an absurd question Karpovsky asks Davis after he smugly describes his happy marriage, qualifies as its own queer invasion from outer space.

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Magnificent Morsels

For the past few years, New York has been in a dim sum slump. A decade ago, Chinatown palaces like Triple Eight and Golden Unicorn were churning out perfect har gow and shui mei for armies of diners, when suddenly, the dumplings became shrunken and desiccated like small rodents on the verge of extinction. Flushing provided some respite at Gum Fung, where the sweet homemade tofu remained spectacular, as did the limited dim sum choices at Taiwanese tong shui spots like Sweet-n-Tart, but for years our intense longing for these noodley morsels has remained largely unfulfilled.

Watching New York’s four Chinatowns—downtown Manhattan, Flushing, Sunset Park, and Homecrest—hasn’t produced results, but lately Hong Kong–style restaurants have been appearing off the grid, especially along Brooklyn’s N train route. In particular, there’s World Tong, a glitzy, red-dragoned place that occupies an obscure corner in New Utrecht. Typical of these restaurants, the interior features a humongous color transparency of Hong Kong harbor ablaze with light, and enough marble to furnish a Roman emperor’s mausoleum. And the waiters, when they speak English, sometimes do so with a slight and somewhat comical British accent. Also typical of these eateries, the lengthy evening menu spans many styles of Chinese cookery, from Sino-American egg foo yong to pork chop Peking-style to Sichuan diced chicken with hot pepper to a surprisingly good moo shoo pork.

We knew we were in for something special when the first cart creaked by one weekday afternoon, as we sat among tables of chattering Chinese and Russian diners. The crustaceans in the shrimp noodles were three-bite wonders, far larger than the picayune specimens usually found wrapped in the glistening and diaphansheets of rice starch. About half of the dim sum wheeled by seemed to feature these gigantic shrimp; heck, even the pork sui mei had a supernumerary shrimp poised on top. But there were also pork-stuffed sheets of bean curd skin; bowls of tripe with chayote dotted with camphor pods, making you feel like Mom had just rubbed Vicks VapoRub on your chest; and delicious miniature dumplings filled only with scallions and flat-leaf parsley (most plates $1.95 to $3.95).

One day a hush fell over the room as a waiter in a waistcoat ran down the aisle like a bridegroom late for his wedding, swinging a bronze suckling pig by the tail. Within minutes, we had acquired a serving ($10.95), with the meat, fat, and crisp skin neatly arranged on a bed of shredded leeks. Another day the highlight of our meal was a wiggly plate of mango pudding molded into a goldfish shape, with black sesame seeds for eyes, flanked by slices of ripe mango. It finally dawned on us that there must be an improvisational dim sum maker operating in the kitchen, a chef of uncommon vision who devoted himself mainly to the smallest of morsels.

But sometimes his experiments go awry. One day we plucked a strange-looking roll, which was cut into four pieces, from the cart. There was red Chinese sausage in the center surrounded by cream-colored fish paste, and the whole thing had been wrapped in nori—the dried seaweed beloved of Japanese and Taiwanese—and then dipped in batter and deep-fried. The sodden result was greasy, fishy, and revoltingly sweet.

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Specimens for Dissection

The restaurant success story of the new millennium is the Italian wine bar. By my count, we now have nearly 30 to choose from, mainly in downtown Manhattan and in Brooklyn. As far as I know, none have yet failed. The earliest examples, like ‘ino, concentrated on pan-Italian snacks that went well with wine, mainly panini and platters of cold meats and cheeses. Eventually, menus became both more specialized and more ambitious. Illustrating the first principle, there are now two places—D.O.C. Wine Bar in Williamsburg and Assenzio in the East Village—that concentrate on Sardinian fare, scooped with the crisp flatbread once eaten by shepherds, called pane carasau. In the latter category, the most ambitious so far is Giorgione, which has extended its menu to include raw oysters, imaginative antipasti, small pizzas, and a short list of pastas and main courses, with nary a panini in sight. Can it still be called a wine bar if it quacks like a restaurant? Let’s just say Giorgione is a restaurant organized according to wine bar principles, which encourage sipping and snacking with no obligation to pursue a multicourse meal. The food is so good, however, that you might want to.

Agreeably located on the bucolic spur of Spring Street that slithers out of Soho in search of the Hudson River, Giorgione is a long, narrow room that begins as a bar, turns into a pizza parlor, then transforms once again into a comfortable dining room, in which the walls are sponged cerulean blue and diffuse lighting conceals even the largest blemishes on the faces of your dining companions. The dish that everyone is likely to be talking about back there is polipette affogate ($12). Eschewing the baby octopi beloved of Sicilians, and the thick adult tentacles of the Greeks, Giorgione’s version features four adolescent specimens, each about four inches in length, lined up on a rectangular platform like specimens for dissection in a zoology lab. And dissect them you will, though your first impulse may be to stuff an entire creature into your mouth. It won’t quite fit, unless you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Other antipasti are nearly as good. But don’t stick to the regular menu: Some of the restaurant’s most exciting fare is found among antipasti specials. One evening we enjoyed a quartet of ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms, and, a few days later, a pair of artichoke bottoms braised with mint. Another time it was an heirloom tomato salad dressed simply with sherry vinegar and fresh oregano. But the strangest starter of all comes from among the regular salads, a crisp green- tomato construction surmounted by shaved slices of pressed tuna roe (bottarga) that do a convincing imitation of rare roast beef. Until you take that first funky bite.

Produced in the wood-burning oven, often by a dude with plenty of picturesque tattoos and piercings, the pizzas are delicious, though there’s little variation among the eight choices ($11 to $14). The pasta selection is more adventuresome, including a maverick strozzapretti—thick, hand-rolled strands intertwined with wads of spicy lamb shank and fresh green peas, and shaggy ricotta-stuffed ravioli called tortellaci, served in a rich chicken stock with fresh green fava beans. The fish and meat entrées ($18 to $26) are massive, and you really don’t need them if you’ve sampled from at least three of the nine categories that constitute the rest of the menu. This is a wine bar, after all.