ILLEGAL HELPERS and Kalustyan's

Illegal Helpers at the Austrian Cultural Forum, is a new German play by Maxi Obexer about the refugee crisis in Europe. Dialogue is taken directly from transcripts of quiet activists who help terrified refugees cross borders and avoid deportation, plus one fictional character (Lukas, played suavely by Viennese Markus Hirnigel) who at first observes what is going on from a cozy bourgeois distance. The other characters tell their stories, including a beloved white-haired aunt (Vivien Meisner, riveting) who considers herself less an activist than one who considers refugees adoptive family. Un-didactically, the 1990 Dublin Regulation is evoked that requires EU countries to accept applications from asylum seekers, and the fact that one can get legal action without legal status. The play makes you demand a fairer, more humane world.

A half-cynical, pony-tailed lawyer played by Mark Byrne instructs a group in how to build a case for citizenship, which includes getting a good interpreter. Then, he lays out his astronomical charge (10,000 euros) for the process. Although this was only a staged reading (and barely staged—music might have helped), you can see the possibilities. The ideas stick. Obexer’s play doesn’t make you laugh, but on the other hand, it doesn’t try to wring tears.

In Germany, as the play points out, only 2% of asylum seekers get to remain. In this country, the crisis is deportation. Every American has a friend who has recently been deported without reason, dragged away in the night. Illegal Helpers has relevance everywhere now. Performances have been in Chicago, Washington D.C., Hungary, and Chechnya. New Yorkers will have another chance to see Illegal Helpers in late August. 

Kalustyan’s is a Little India food shop with a cafeteria serving mostly vegan food of rare deliciousness. Spinach, eggplant, lentil, and couscous entrees come with salad, pickles, olives, and pita. Mujadarah (spiced lentils and delicately fried onions) platter is a favorite. Available drinks are nonalcoholic at this small upstairs eatery, open from 11 a.m. to 7:30.

The megastore downstairs is open from 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. It is impossible to eat at the restaurant without wanting to do a little shopping on your way out. Bird’s nest pastries, halva, lentils of every shape and color, packaged snacks, nuts, dried fruit, herbed bread and samosas, stuffed grape leaves, curry pastes, chutneys, cookies, jams. Kalustyan’s house-made baba ghanoush is smoky and about the best in the world. The extensive tea section includes Lebanese love potion tea with 32 ingredients. People also come here for such health potions as fresh turmeric, senna leaf tea, gluten-free flours, spirulina, and neti pots. 

A DOLL'S HOUSE PART II and Un Deux Trois

In this revisionist Broadway season (the wheelchair in Glass Menagerie), the world’s most famous play about marriage, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, gets a refreshing sequel with A Doll’s House Part II, by Lucas Hnath. In fact, it’s better than the 1879 play from which it derives.

In the fifteen years since she walked out on Torvald and their children, Nora has done very well for herself and is a rich woman. However, nineteenth-century laws prevent her from being a free agent. Particularly while married, she could be put in jail for what she has accomplished. “Twenty to thirty years from now marriage will be a thing of the past,” Nora says confidently—a line that gets a big laugh.

Nora has come to secure the divorce that Torvald denied her. Indeed, he has explained her absence by saying she is dead. The family retainer, Anne Marie—played with heart and humor by Jayne Houdyshell—ultimately must defend her employer.

Nora’s formidable daughter, Condola Rashad (recently Juliet against Orlando Bloom’s Romeo), is concerned that Nora’s visit might throw a wrench in to her imminent marriage to a conservative banker like her father. Cast against type, Oscar-winning Chris Cooper’s Torvald is sympathetic and almost crushable. Think of all the repulsive Torvalds we’ve seen.

The great Laurie Metcalf gives another blazing performance on Broadway. You feel everything that her Nora feels. When she must connive to get her way, her wit and ingenuity are never in doubt. Even against oppressive tradition, she persists. She is Wendy Davis, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Maxine Waters, Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi, Sally Yates, Kirsten Gillibrand, Gabrielle Giffords, the Notorious RBG, and HRC, winner of the popular vote.

Contemporary language set against nineteenth-century costume suits the ensemble, as do a couple of anomalous twentieth-century devices: a water bottle, a box of tissues.

Café Un Deux Trois (123 West 44th St) makes a famous country paté first course and delicious Boeuf Bourguignon, though doesn’t hone strictly to a French menu. An institution since its splashy opening in 1977, Un Deux Trois evokes the eighties and parties hard late at night once the play is over. It’s packed early for the pre-theatre prix fixe, three courses for $35, available from 3:30 p.m. until midnight, which includes the paté, plus a choice of pasta, chicken or fish. The popular chicken Kiev comes sliced up (preventing you from enjoying the little squirt when you first cut in). Pastas are deservedly popular here, and the fish choice daurade, was in an expert olive camponata, though served with minute rice. You order off the a la carte menu for frittes. Desserts included a perfect New York cheese cake with raspberry reduction and a superior chocolate mousse.

Interestingly dressed and coiffed theatregoers collect at an art nouveau bar. The banquette near the bar is a great location to enjoy both the bustle and the flirtatious French manager with waxed moustache, Gérard. “As in ‘Gérard Depardieu,’” he says.

THE DRESSMAKER’S SECRET and Rôtisserie Georgette

A dressmaker, played by Tracy Sallows, raises her nineteen-year-old son (Bryan Burton) in post-war Romania. Robi is fascinated with all things Western and has his sights set on America, while his mother would prefer he stay at home.

When Irma, a member of the party (Caralyn Kozlowski) visits to have a dress made, Maria is anxious and fears surveillance. Irma’s brother (Robert S. Gregory) is likely the boy’s father. After two decades, he wants forgiveness and his sister to set the record straight. Irma’s own intent is a real surprise.

Confessions are made and hurts uncovered. Sallows is grounded and complex as Maria. Irma (played by Caralyn Kozlowski) is strong as Maria’a old friend, dodging self-disclosure.

With Cold War surveillance a hot topic, this ambitious play co-written by Sarah Levine Simon and Mihai Grünfeld (who has his own story about escaping Romania as a young man) is timely. The 59E59 Theaters fearlessly take on political subjects, including a very well-praised play by Jeffrey Sweet about lawyer and Constitutional civil rights activist William Kunstler played by Jeff McCarthy.

Rôtisserie Georgette is a short block from the 59E59 Theaters. Tall ceilings and a baronial atmosphere were most inviting on a cold winter night. “It’s Louis XV meets the kitchen,” says the founder Georgette Farkas.

The bronzed rotisserie chicken is delicious all on its own, without the dipping sauces, as is the duck in a bitter orange sauce. Twice-baked potato is another specialty and beautifully presented. Two all-star sides were the stack of maple-roasted carrots with grain mustard and the wedges of golden winter beets, granny smith apples and mimolette cheese. We didn’t have time for dessert but were recommended the pot de crème au chocolate, served in the mug it was baked in.   JENSEN WHEELER WOLFE

HEISENBERG with Mary-Louise Parker

One of the freer actresses of our time, Mary-Louise Parker

We're still talking about a fresh, new, two-character play we came to too late to review in 2016, Heisenberg, by British playwright Simon Stephens. We hope Heisenberg does well at the Tonys.

Mary-Louise Parker played to raves on Broadway in 1990 with Alec Baldwin in Prelude to a Kiss, more recently starred in the cable TV Weeds, for which she won a 2006 Golden Globe, and she received a Tony in 2001 for her role in Proof. Parker doesn’t play victims or losers. She is bold and one of the freer actresses of our time.

In Heisenberg, which seems to be written for her, Mary-Louise Parker plays an American living in London, a hippie grifter who meets a well-preserved older man in a train station (Denis Arndt). Their unlikely friendship leads them to spend a night together. In the morning, he realizes her intentions were not as he thought. Given time to reconsider, he chooses to go along with her anyway. She boldly takes them where they’ve never been before.

It’s a mature perspective that what initially seems very good can turn out to be very bad—and revert back to good in the end. The uplift you get from Heisenberg is philosophic and romantic. The title is from physics’ Heisenberg uncertainty principle that explains the more clearly you see one thing, the less clearly you see another.


Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel was performed in a holiday show by Amore Opera. The matinee audience was rapt as Gretel (adorable Smitha Johnson) murders the witch, shoving her into the oven, and with the superpowers newly invested in her, the children that the witch killed come back to life. It was a powerful moment. The ten children on stage were acting so totally.

Amore Opera nurtures a passionate performance, whatever the age of the singer. Rob Garner, with his velvet baritone and expressive acting, played the father. We were also pleased to see among the serious and professional gingerbread children Arden Wheeler Wolfe, in her third Amore opera. (Her favorite still is Don Giovanni.)

As the witch, Anita Lyons is full out, the way a witch should be. She is fun and creepy and enjoys every moment of her wickedness. She has some great dance steps! Amore Opera knows how to find humor in the drama (without resorting to broad panto casting). At a fraction of the cost of a ticket, don't expect the sets to compete with the Metropolitan Opera's. The forest backdrop seemed in danger of falling over, yet the magic went on. The orchestra is so good, conducted by lanky Richard Owen (in tux with tail coat). Looking forward to Carmen and a rare performance of Donizetti's La Zingara (The Gypsy Woman) in 2017.

Cozy, well-lit and welcoming, the Colombian restaurant Dulce Vida is prized on the Upper East Side. The menu is varied, though fish is practically absent. A popular platos fuerte is flank steak with rice, fried egg, red beans, plantains, and Colombian style bacon. The red bean casserole is another, with the Colombian style bacon, steak, and sweet plantains. Empanadas with shredded chicken or beef have a crispy corn crust.

Maria's Guacamole with plantain chips is especially great, and the vinegary pepper sauce, Aji, is simply wonderful, made in house. You can take a jar of Dulce Vida's green pepper sauce home. It's mild enough to serve to a Republican. Numerous postres (desserts) are also packaged to go, including flan and tres leches cake.

CAROL BURNETT and Cafe Luxembourg

Carol Burnett in her television show made outrageous fun of American types and celebrities in a timeless way. At the end she’d walk out as herself, in a gown by Bob Mackie (known for dressing Cher; Carol wore “a thousand” of his gowns and costumes). She would then take questions from the studio audience. This is recreated in the current show of remembrances that Burnett is taking around the world, with a new memoir, In Such Good Company.

Her New York City audience gave a standing ovation the moment she stepped out on stage, and their reactions were extravagant and out of control from then on. Carol Burnett at age 80-something delivers a Tarzan yell and an uncanny imitation of the voice of Jimmy Stewart, her girlhood heartthrob.

Questions from the vast Beacon Theatre audience on a night of the full moon included a person in the upper tier who uncomfortably asked whether, knowing what she knows now, she would have done something different as a mother. There was a sharp intake of breath from the audience—we knew her late daughter Carrie was afflicted with drug and alcohol dependence. Carol’s response, “No, nothing,” cut through the tension.

She said that her TV show (1967-1978) almost did not get off the ground because producers had cold feet, until the last minute. This major feminist point was probably lost on our younger critic, Arden Wheeler Wolfe. Instead, Arden was riveted by the costumes. Carol Burnett indeed has always been as svelte and upright as a haute couture model, the better to wear a thousand Bob Mackie gowns, with (we’re guessing) Joan Rivers’ stamp of approval on every one. “She looks like a sixty-year-old,” judged Arden, Jensen's ten-year-old.

Burnett reminisces with patched-in video of sketches and guest stars (Gloria Swanson! Maggie Smith! Madeline Kahn! Steve Martin! Betty White!). Asked if there is a film or TV program she would parody today, Carol answered, Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Her fans know that she would nail reality TV in her subversive, joyously scabrous way. She makes parodists today (apart from Tracey Ullman, perhaps) look too safe.

Carol acknowledges a debt to the other comic geniuses on her team: Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway, and Harvey Korman. At the end she sings “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together,” sign-off of The Carol Burnett Show, and she pulled her ear lobe, the secret greeting she made at the end of every show to her grandmother, who brought her up. (Anyone who has read the account of her poverty-stricken Dickensian childhood never forgets it.)

Grateful to have been in the generous presence of Carol Burnett, we’re so glad we had this time together—actually, it felt magic. Get tickets if she’s coming to your town.

Like the country of Luxembourg, Cafe Luxembourg is tiny and pretty. It gets a pre-concert crowd and is always packed. The food is very good and priced accordingly. You’ll be happy if, price-consciously, you stick to the yellowfin tuna burger (with wasabi dressing, served with frites or salad), or the Luxemburger, served all day, or the roasted chicken in Dijon sauce (left) that is served with the beautiful frites, a bargain on the evening menu. The grilled octopus with Moroccan salad was extraordinary. Wish we had room for the pan-roasted lamb chops with zucchini blossoms or any of the classic French desserts. Cyndi Lauper was eating there on a recent night, in white tasseled earrings, looking so fab. (Yes, Cyndi, girls just want to have fun, you were so right about that!)

Café Luxembourg opened in 1983 and restaged a Brassai photograph of three fleshy women wearing only their shoes, standing at the bar with their backs to the camera. Clever marketing, and when you get your tab at the end of the meal at Café Luxembourg, you receive chocolates wrapped with the famous photo.

THE HUMANS and La Pulperia

Set David Zinn, The Humans. Photo Sara Krulwich/NYT
Brigid Blake (Sarah Steele) and Richard Saad (Arian Moayed) moved in together and want to show off their duplex to the Blake family, visiting from Scranton, PA. On a neat dollhouse set, it seems a hopeful fresh start. The parents’ disappointment quickly turns it into a badly wired basement apartment in the floodwater zone. Oh look, it’s snowing! says the host hopefully, peering out the apartment's single window. But it turns out to be floating ash, as a neighbor has emptied an ashtray into the courtyard.

In spite of glimmers of humor, this Thanksgiving feast en famille, The Humans, is unrelievedly uncomfortable, a play that runs for two hours with no intermission. For the duration, Granny (Lauren Klein in the mainly-silent role of Momo) is parked onstage in in a wheelchair, drooling out of one side of her mouth.

Although Irish ballads are sung, the Blakes seem as Irish-American as the Sopranos. They share tragic problems with no dramatic context. The food in Pyrex dishes passed around the table looks gassy, and the bathroom is often evoked, with the previous occupant apologizing for the smell in there.

The action is frequently interrupted by a startlingly loud sound, like a bomb—never explained. The Humans can be nauseating, but the program comes with a warning in capital letters: “The play will be performed without an intermission. IF YOU LEAVE YOUR SEAT FOR ANY REASON DURING THE PERFORMANCE, YOU WILL NOT BE PERMITTED TO RETURN.”

A grounded and also funny character is the eldest, lawyer daughter played by Cassie Beck. Beck has a smart way of lightening things up—even though her character is overburdened by the playwright with a breakup, loss of her partner-track job, and uncerative colitis requiring a colectomy.

Jayne Houdyshell as the mother won the Tony for best featured actress. Houdyshell is hilarious when she discovers a mouse or cockroach. She lends a Shakespearean gravitas to the weakest lines, for instance as she reads the trite message Momo wrote before she lost her mind: "Dance more than I did. Drink less than I did. Go to church. Be good to everyone…".

Steele and Moayed are sweet as the young couple. What an ensemble of acting magnitude. There really should be a Tony Award for casting (Carrie Gardner, C.S.A.)! Reed Birney got a Tony as the father with the unpromising financial outlook. Also no surprise, David Zinn won for best scenic design. Young playwright Stephen Karam won the night’s fourth Tony for his play The Humans.

La Pulperia serves haute cuisine at moderate prices from a “borderless Latin menu.” We didn’t bother to take notes because everything we tried was so memorable. The signature appetizer is a light salmon brûlée, covered in a crisp burnt sugar shell and micro greens. Brazilian Moqueca Mixta (seafood with chorizo and soybean) is served in a large soup bowl with a halo of green coconut rice. This food is not heavy and is perfect for before a play. No bread is served or needed.

"Some people mistake us for a Mexican restaurant,” said our waiter from Puerto Rico, “so we added guacamole to the menu.” 

The grilled fish ribs are from a massive, prehistoric Caribbean fish. Next time we'll order that. Our grilled octopus was perfectly tender, and chewy, with a black crust. It came with a tasting of six vegetable cazuelitas, notably celery root gratin, eggplant chambota, and Russian potato salad with a Latin beat. Desserts are topped with ice cream made from tropical fruits cherimoya and lúcuma. 

The cocktail La Pulperia is pineapple, tequila, Cointreau, and jalapeno in a glass rimmed with black lava salt. Hibiscus Piscus is a deep red cocktail with chamomile tea, gin and pisco (brandy), with a rose bud floating on an ice slab.

La Pulperia’s bigger Second Avenue location offers a cooking and mixology class with chefs Carlos Barroz and Victor Medina in which you learn to prepare one dish and one cocktail. At the cavelike Theatre Row location there's a drag queen brunch on Sunday.