Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Worst Pies in London

Some plays stick with you.

When I first saw "Sweeney Todd" at the Kennedy Center in 1980, it was unlike anything I'd ever seen. Dark yet humorous, mostly sung with little dialog and performed with an incredible set, the play solidified my passion for anything written by Stephen Sondheim, whom I'd first fallen hard for after seeing "Pacific Overtures" a few years earlier in the same theater.

So when I saw that upstart theater company TheatreLAB was producing "Sweeney Todd" at the Basement, I wasted no time in scoring tickets. Good thing, too, since the run sold out barely a week after opening.

Then I rallied the troops. Mr. Wright, with whom I'd so enjoyed "Sondheim by Sondheim" and a fan himself, was a given and Pru and Beau wasted no time in signing on. To make it even better, we had a new Jackson Ward restaurant to try beforehand.

So long, Rogue and welcome to the neighborhood, Adarra. When we walked in, it was to find the chef owner discussing wine with his staff, but he waved us in. I went into scan mode, deciding that the space is certainly more attractive than it was, sort of clubby feeling with warm browns and less of a bar vibe.

I've been a fan of the chef since his days at Julep (when he gave me and some friends a lesson in salt) when it was in the Bottom and right on through his tenure at Nota Bene, so I felt pretty confident we were going to have a terrific meal.

Do I sound like a braggart if I say I was right?

Choosing to start with San Venanzio Prosecco Tresio, Beau announced that my nickname should be Bubbles and I don't think he meant because of my personality. Whatevs. Mr. Wright, mindful of the future, stayed the course with Alfredo Maestro Vina Almater, a Tempranillo that got him reminiscing about pintxos versus tapas, a distinction I'm still learning.

All our selections came from the sea, perhaps wishful thinking on my part since it was supposed to go down to 31 degrees last night. Plump head-on shrimp in a bath of bagna cauda - aka garlic, anchovies and olive oil - got a second life once we polished off the shrimp when I suggested everyone use bread to sop up the rich oil.

Whole lot of moaning going on for that.

As predicted by the guy in the argyle sweater across from me, I gravitated to roasted skate with smoked butter and sauteed green onion greens (which were killer), but so did they, which was smart since I wasn't going to share with anybody but my date. Mr. Wright and I did share a large bowl of seasonal fish stew laden with monkfish, shrimp, mussels and calamari in a tomato-based broth he described as "persuasive but not overbearing."

Now that I think about it, that's probably how I'd like to be perceived: persuasive but not overbearing.

If I'm honest, I'm not entirely sure of everything Pru and Beau ordered because we were so busy chowing down with dishes arriving every few minutes that I couldn't pay attention to what went in their mouths. I know they had the roasted squash with goat cheese and verde sauce because I snagged a few bites and Beau wasn't far off proclaiming he could eat two bowls of it. It really was that good.

And while I can't speak to how wonderful the Iberico chorizo or Iberico ham were, I noticed there was none left over. But easily the most satisfying dish to land on the table was gnocchi with mushrooms and Ricotta, with its earthy flavors and melt-in-your-mouth texture. So good, in fact, that a second bowl was required.

Because, let's get real here, sometimes all you want to do is hit repeat when you get to the bottom of a truly decadent dish.

Half the table eschewed a final course (no, I don't know what planet they're from), but the dessert-devoted didn't, with Beau choosing polenta cake and yours truly having panna cotta with blood orange. With a play about murder and cannibalism in our near future, it only made sense to get any eating out of the way in advance.

When we got up to leave, I spotted a favorite restaurant couple at the bar and stopped to say hello and meet their companion. When I raved about our meal, the response was, "His food has always been great," as I know. But they also love that it's another spot in J-Ward and I'm with them on that, too.

Bring 'em on and the more, the merrier. Anyplace I can walk to suits us just fine.

And if it's a place that's only a few blocks from the Basement, all the better. We arrived early, expecting general admission seating, only to find that two stools had been reserved for Mr. Wright and I right behind the large wooden chest that the cast would use to hide the bodies.

Talk about your prime seating. Pru and Beau took stools behind us along the wall and we all settled in for a tale of vengeance, love and how to succeed in the pie business without resorting to using kitty cats for filler, all set off by plastic-covered walls.

Think of it as thrift,
As a gift,
If you get my drift
With the price of meat what it is...

Director Deejay Gray has to be commended for stripping down the set, limiting the musicians to piano and violin and choosing a ridiculously strong cast to convey the macabre story.

Every time I see Alexander Sapp in another role, I feel more certain that we'll lose him to a bigger market given his outsize talent. His Sweeney Todd managed to be heartbroken over the loss of his wife and child, while portraying his murderous impulses with real menace.

As Mrs. Lovett, Bianca Bryan portrays the woman who sees the potential in having a man around, even if he's the murderous sort. Adding dimension to the character were her moments of humor which underpinned the story because we all know comedy plays best when it comes from tension.

Awkward joke, anyone?

Audra Honaker got the award for most valuable, posing as the virginal bide, evoking pity as the beggar woman and showing off her comedic skills as Pirelli, the Italian selling hair oil. And don't get me started on Matt Shofner as Tobias Ragg, Pirelli's dim-witted assistant who becomes Mrs. Lovett's dim-witted assistant once Pirelli has been dispatched to the chest at our feet, his scarf trailing out the side. By turns devoted, hard-working and ultimately all-seeing, Shofner brought real humanity to his Tobias.

But everyone nailed their roles and there wasn't a weak voice in the bunch as the story unfolded mesmerizingly, even with full knowledge of what was going to happen. That TheatreLAB made what was old fresh attests to their ability to produce classics currently told.

All of which leads me to conclude that being exposed to Sondheim at a tender, young age is enough to make a theater-lover out of anyone, even a woman who can't carry a tune in a bucket (as my grandmother used to say about me).

As for my attraction to a play about a restaurant - okay, a place that serves meat pies - let's not forget the underlying essence of "Sweeney Todd." Everybody goes down well with beer.

Never more so than when served up in dark basement in Jackson Ward. If you get my drift...

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