Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Last fall, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater's new East Village club, UC Beast, opened with a party that included Amy Poehler (the most famous co-founder of UCB) on emcee duties and Fugazi's Ian MacKaye as a special guest. Although it might have seemed odd to see one of the funniest comics in America next to the serious king of DIY, it's this blend of side-splitting laughs with a scrappy, independent spirit that has made the club a welcome addition to the comedy scene. The refurbished 124-seat theater (formerly home to the Two Boots Pioneer Theater) is where you can catch some of the most outrageous and experimental sketch, improv, and stand-up in town for less than the price of a movie. The consistently great schedule includes everything from silly storytelling shows with names like My High School Boyfriend Was Gay to popular performers, including Demetri Martin, Janeane Garofalo, Jonathan Ames, Judah Friedlander, and Rachel Dratch, trying out new material and cutting loose. The theater has two lobbies, one on 3rd Street and one on Avenue A, which is also a bar known as the Hot Chicks Room, an inside joke for hardcore UCB fans. Happy hour is every day from 6 to 8, and drink specials include $2 sake bombs and $10 pitchers of Beast Bubbles (a/k/a Narragansett Beer). Plus, the Two Boots pizzeria is between the two entrances for a quick bite to eat before showtime. 153 East 3rd Street, 212-366-9231, east.ucbtheatre.com (10009)
It's vast. Frighteningly vast, for an indoor space. And kind of scary, in a medieval what-should-we-do-with-these-troublesome-dukes sort of way—part of it feels like an epic dungeon. Once upon a New York time, arts groups were able to use the place as a performance and exhibition venue. It was—Jesus—literally awesome. But then some cruel history led to its shutdown, and the city lost one of its most unique and fabulous arts venues. So here's hoping that the city can one day reopen the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage, which was closed for security reasons after the 9/11 attacks. Inside the Brooklyn side of the bridge's anchorage lie huge vaulted rooms with soaring brick walls. The arts organization Creative Time helped oversee the cavernous space, programming avant-garde music, theater, and art. The shows were uneven, but it never mattered—they were all elevated by happening in such a spectacular, and often spectacularly creepy, location. Maybe someday we'll get to be haunted by it again.
OK, we confess to being dubious at first. When Off-Broadway types get their hands on a pile of cash, it doesn't always lead to the greatest decisions. And we've been pretty down on the celebrity architect the theater hired to help design its new home, a guy once revered but who had lately demonstrated a few Speer-like tendencies in his involvement with Atlantic Yards. But like a good play, the venue they teamed up to build was a fine surprise. So much so that this year we're happy to give our laurels for best Off-Broadway theater to the Signature Theatre, in honor of its fab new space and nicely expanded programming. The facility—which features three separate venues—is huge and airy and pleasant, without seeming cold or institutional. It almost feels like a modern European theater, not like the makeshift or cramped or basement venues so common in NYC. You actually want to be there. Its debut season offered plays by Athol Fugard, Katori Hall, Kenneth Lonergan, Will Eno, and a compelling revival of Edward Albee's The Lady From Dubuque. The 2012–2013 season boasts eight shows, including a recent premiere by Sam Shepard. (The playwright list so far is too male, but we'll see how that goes.) And hey, seats are only $25. A signature move, for sure. 480 West 42nd Street, 212-273-0784, signaturetheatre.org (10036)
There are 40 Broadway theaters in New York, ranging in size from the smallish Helen Hayes (capacity 597) to the massive Gershwin (capacity 1,933). Our favorite falls somewhere in between, though it seems considerably more intimate than a thousand seats. Indeed, that's one of the reasons we like it—the place actually feels cozy. So cozy that, with its murals and woodwork and gentle lighting, you almost want to live there. Which its famous historical owner once did, in his apartment atop the theater. We'd be happy to move into the Belasco ourselves, certainly now that the ghost of noted impresario David Belasco is said to no longer haunt it. You can feel the history in other ways, too: The venue was home to the Group Theatre in the 1930s, hosting Clifford Odets premieres such as Golden Boy, Waiting for Lefty, and Awake and Sing! Indeed, one of the pleasures of watching Awake and Sing! revived there in 2006 was knowing it was on the same stage as the original 70 years earlier. Broadway prices are ludicrous, but at the Belasco those extra dollars can just seem kind of worth it. 111 West 44th Street, 212-239-6200 (10036)
With rap being such a universal language, it's surprising (and disappointing) that we haven't seen more of it here in its hometown coming from many Asian crews. Luckily, there's Notorious MSG, now celebrating its 10th year, which its leader Hong Kong Fever finds appropriate because "our material is best appreciated by individuals of the same age." Clichéd as it sounds, the band did actually meet up working in Chinatown kitchens, usually writing rhymes about unpleasant customers. And as jokey as they are, using egg rolls as phallic symbols and appropriating familiar Asian melodies, HKF sees the band as both a statement and reaction to Asian stereotypes. Similarly, while other rap groups occasionally write them off at first sight, MSG handily proves itself, touring with their own metal-rock band, indulging in humorous theatrics for their shows, and, as HKF says, "banging their ear holes with the sonic dong of Zeus." notoriousmsg.com
This city is renowned for its famous jazz clubs, but they're usually packed with well-strapped tourists for a reason: The cover charge can sting. Luckily, there are more economical options available here, like Seleno Clarke's weekly show at American Legion Post 398. Organist Clarke has a career that stretches back to the '50s and a sound that harkens back to '60s r&b. For 14 years now, he and his Harlem Groove Band have hosted a Sunday-night show with guests including legends like George Benson, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Jimmy McGriff. This regular gig has led to him downtown bookings and international tours (where he's known as the "Harlem Ambassador of Jazz"), but the best place to catch him is in his home turf. Get there early though—the venue holds 100 inside and on the patio, and already some savvy tourists have flocked there to hear him. 248 West 132nd Street, 212-283-9701 (10027)