Dinner and a Movie/Brooklyn


Colm Toibin’s  touching novel, Brooklyn was adapted beautifully into a screenplay by Nick Hornby.  Hornby’s novels About a Boy and High Fidelity were also adapted into popular films, and his original screenplay, An Education, was also well received by critics and audiences alike.

Brooklyn did well at the Academy Awards, as it was nominated in three categories, Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The story takes place in 1952, and starts in a small coastal, Irish town. It tells the story of young Eilis (pronounced EY-lish) Lacey, who lives with her mother and older sister, and works for a spiteful, mean-spirited shop owner.  Eilis’s sister sees that there is not much of a future for her young sister, and through the help of a Priest, who moved from Ireland to Brooklyn years earlier, she arranges for Eilis to move to Brooklyn, in hopes of her finding a more secure and interesting life outside the hometown.

The Priest (played by Jim Broadbent) has set Eilis up with a job in a department store, and finds her a place in a small, women-only boarding house owned by the Irish-born, proper, supportive, Madge Kehoe, played by the consistently wonderful Julie Walters. (It is my understanding that the BBC is producing a TV series, of the same name, where Ms. Walters will reprise her role as Madge Kehoe.)

We see Eilis go through a transformation from the very momentThe Priest (played by Jim Broadbent) has set Eilis up with a job in a department store, and finds her a place in a small, women-only boarding house owned by the Irish-born, proper, supportive, Madge Kehoe, played by the consistently wonderful Julie Walters. (It is my understanding that the BBC is producing a TV series, of the same name, where Ms. Walters will reprise her role as Madge Kehoe.) she steps aboard the ship. She goes from a quiet, unsure, small town Irish girl to a poised, self-assured, even glamorous American woman. Ronan’s transformation into this more sophisticated Eilis grows from scene to scene.

Saoirse Ronan, as Eilis, gives us a thoughtful and intelligent performance of material that could easily move into the overly sentimental.  She is delightful. I am looking forward to watching this actress blossom in future roles, and since this is her second Academy Award nomination (her first was for playing the contrite young sister in Atonement) I feel we will be seeing much from her in the future.

Eilis meets Tony Fiorello, the Brooklyn born son of immigrant Italian parents, who is beautifully played by the very interesting Emory Cohen. In Eilis, Tony has found someone more important to him than even the Brooklyn Dodgers, and he outlines the possibility of a life in Long Island with the woman he marries.

A family emergency forces Eilis to return to Ireland, but she makes it clear that she intends to return to her life in Brooklyn after the visit. It is here that Eilis’s choices become difficult, as she sees more possibilities in her visit back than she did when she lived there. These choices are made more complicated by the fact that she has also meets a hometown boy (played by Domnhall Gleeson, son of actor Brendon Gleeson) and feelings begin to develop between the two, much to the delight of her mother, and the boy’s family.

The film is an Irish/Canadian co-production, and is beautifully filmed, for the most part, in Ireland, with a few New York locations. It is currently available on DVD, and is, of course, available on demand.





As you can see from the trailer, Eilis is a guest at the family table of her new boyfriend, Tony Fiorello. She receives tutoring in the art of tidy spaghetti eating from her fellow boarding-house mates.   So, in putting together a menu for a post or pre-dinner screening of the film, I was torn between presenting an Irish menu, or an Italian one.  But Brooklyn is a melting pot, so I think I have come up with a hybrid menu that should cover both rather nicely.

Pre-dinner Libations:

In 2006, a bar opened in Brooklyn serving a Pickle Back cocktail. Some people tell me that this cocktail has been around longer than 2006, but I have not yet seen evidence of this. Pickles are very popular in Brooklyn, and all New York delis that specialize in Jewish cuisine, you will find small bowls of pickles on each table. I presume this is why the pickle back had its origin in Brooklyn.

Very simply, a Pickle back consists of two shot glasses.  One with Irish Whiskey, and one with dill pickle juice. You drink the whiskey first, and then the brine.

One shot of Irish Whiskey (Jamison or Bushnell’s preferred)                                                           One shot of pickle juice.                                                                                                                                   You can just take some juice from your favorite jar of pickles, however, if you can’t stand the thought of your jarred pickles swimming without the aid of it’s delicious liquid, a company named, Van Holten’s offers bottles of pickle brine specifically for this cocktail.  Otherwise, just save your pickle juice from your empty dill pickles jars, and strain the juice through  a wire mesh. This just gives you a legitimate reason to eat more pickles.

Appetizer:  Asparagus with Parmesan cheese

In a shallow pan, boil around 2 inches of water, and gently add the asparagus and cook for around 3 minutes.

Take asparagus out, dump the water, and put the asparagus back in the pan with a generous amount of butter.  Once butter is melted, plate the asparagus, and top with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.  Place in front of guests, and feel good that your appetizer is, at least a little, healthy.

Main Course: Guiness Beef Stew

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 boneless beef chuck roast (2 to 3 pounds)  You can also use a small, bonelss lamb shoulder
  • 2 medium onions, sliced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 Bottle of Guinness 
  • 1/2 Cup sliced mushrooms
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • Fresh Thyme
  • 8 Red Bliss Potatoes
  • Salt Pepper
  • 2 medium carrots, sliced
  • 2 cup water
  • Salt and Pepper
    1. In a Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Brown roast on all sides; remove from pan.
    2. In same pan, heat remaining oil. Add onions and garlic; cook and stir until tender. Deglaze pan with the Guinness (scrape up all that good stuff on the bottom of the pan)  Stir in mushrooms, brown sugar, . Return roast to pan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer, covered, 1-1/2 hours.
    3. Stir in remaining ingredients. Return to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer, covered, 15-25 minutes longer or until meat and vegetables are tender.


    Now would be a good time to start the movie.

    Fear not, for I did not forget dessert. I have just decided to provide an easy dessert that can be eaten on a comfy chairs and couches, while we watch the movie.

    Dessert: Unbelievably easy Cannoli Dip:

    Package of Wonton Wrappers cut in triangles

    Canola Oil for frying

    1/4 granulated sugar, mixed with a 1/2 a teaspoon of cinnamon


    3/4 Cup Ricotta Cheese, strained, over-night through a cheesecloth and squeezed dry

    3/4 Cup of Mascarpone Cheese

    1/4 Cup Powdered Sugar

    1/2 teaspoon Vanilla

    Small bag of mini-chocolate chips

    Pinch of Salt

    Beat with mixer until smooth. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours

    Heat oil in pan to 350 degrees. Put no more than 4 triangles in the oil, until they brown slightly and firm up. Dry on a paper towel, and  gently sprinkle plain sugar and cinnamon mixed together over the wrappers.  Working in batches. These certainly can be made ahead, as you will be serving them at room temperature, however, do not do this step the night before as they might get stale.

    Assemble individual plates, with some cannoli chips, and two ramekins; one filled with the filling, and one filled with mini-chocolate chips.

    Start up the movie, and end the evening with Irish Coffee, or some more Irish Whiskey without the coffee.

    Happy Viewing!










Jay/A better Obituary

(I was given an assignment to write a “better obituary” for a loved one. One that would speak more clearly and honestly than the usual ones you read in the paper.  I have submitted this about my brother.)

Jay Van Cott

Jay Van Cott died in his Dallas condo on July 4th, 2000, just shy of his 50th birthday.  Mr. Van Cott chose to celebrate the Independence Day weekend, by declaring his own independence from this earth, via suicide.

Mr. Van Cott was born in Hartford, CT in 1950, attended Branford High School, and graduated Suma cum Laude from Connecticut College with a double major in History and Art History.  He left behind approximately 3,000 hard cover books, all of which he read, a closet full at least 200 heavily starched business shirts, and somewhere around 1,000 silk ties. He also possessed a brilliant mind, a voracious appetite for knowledge, impeccable taste in art, and a sister who adored him.

His sister recalls that when they were young, he made a list of Academy Award winners in three categories; Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress. He called this list, his “Oscar Roster.” He made his sister, who was two years his junior, memorize the list, and he quizzed her regularly. On one occasion, he woke her up in the middle of the night, and said, “1961, Best Actress. And I will give you extra credit if you name the movie she won it for.” After she answered Elizabeth Taylor for Butterfield 8, he kissed her and told her he had the best sister in the world.

On a good day, Mr. Van Cott was the most charming person in the room. He was well read, naturally curious, and charismatic, so he could hold court on virtually any subject.  People leaned in to hear what he had to say. On a bad day, he could be quite cruel.

He was born at a time when homosexuals were encouraged to keep their sexual identity to themselves, so he became adept at lying about girlfriends that did not exist, and even fabricated a story about marrying his high school sweetheart to keep his elderly neighbor in Dallas entertained. Years of pretending to be something he was not took its toll on him, and his once handsome face was replaced with an ever present sneer.  His beautiful blue eyes, became dark and empty, and his laughter, which was once so readily available, was silenced.  Even his sister, whose job it was to keep him laughing, could no longer succeed at bringing it forward.

For over thirty years, Mr. Van Cott wrote in a daily journal. His handwriting was beautiful to behold, but nearly impossible to read without the aid of a magnifying glass. With the exception of the last month of his life, his daily entries were entered into large, leather-bound blank books, written with finely crafted pens. His final month’s submissions were found on loose leaf paper kept in a weathered, grey, three-ringed binder, and written with a Bic ballpoint.  The last sentence of his last journal, written, after what appeared to be, two solid days of no food or sleep, cup after cup of coffee, and several packs of cigarettes smoked down to the filter, offered no specific reason as to why he would then hang himself;  just that he felt he had to, before it was, “Too late.”

Jon English 1949-2016/Hurrah for the Pirate King

It is hard to lose a member of your tribe.  Learning of Jon English’s passing this week, was a stunning reminder that we are not as young as we used to be, and that all those people we have loved and cherished for so many years, are not going to be around for ever.

My ten years in Australia were the happiest of my life. I bounced from one show to the next, and spent my time on stage and off with some of the most intelligent, funny, loyal, talented, crazy, fun, loving people I have ever known. They were my family, and I loved my family.  I still do.

My first day of rehearsals for Pirates of Penzance was like any other first day of rehearsals. It feels very much like your first day at school; you are excited to begin a new adventure, and your optimism is tempered by a healthy dose of insecurity.

I usually play it safe on the first day.  I lay low. I sing with confidence but not bravado, I study the script and the score with a serious look on my face, and I am friendly and obliging with the other kids on the playground.  I don’t know what prompted me to do what I did not that first day, but somehow I felt I could get away with it with this new group of colleagues.

During this time, there were a series of ads on TV, for a company that renovated kitchens. The ads showed actual customers giving testimonials about their new kitchens, and talked about how the “chappies” left the place neat and tidy upon completion. The kitchen, in our rehearsal space, was rather spiffy, compared to what you usually see in rehearsal facilities, and I somehow plucked up enough courage to do an elaborate improv, giving a similar testimonial in a broad Australian accent, which ended in me saying that all it cost me was my first born, male child.  To my relief, it was rewarded with laughter from everyone but Jon.  Jon just stood there, nodding his head, and said with startling seriousness, “You are funny. You are very fucking funny.”

Pirates was a great show. The audience loved it, the critics adored it, and no one had more fun during the show than we did.  Jon, large in physical stature as well as legend, was our Pirate King on and off the stage.

The producers of the show were not the most generous I have ever worked with.  In fact, there were times when they were just downright cheap.  When we were told that we would receive no discount for any of the show memorabilia that they sold at the box office, Jon bought every cast member a T-Shirt. More than once, when attempting to pay a tab at the theatre bar, we were told Mr. English took care of it.

Since Jon and I both lived west of downtown Sydney, during our Sydney season, Jon picked me up on his way to the theatre, and also drove me back home. During this time, I was having relationship difficulties with the man I was living with, and Jon frequently provided me with a shoulder to cry upon when I needed one.

But there was also much laughter. One incident in Perth stands out particularly, when four of us were having breakfast in a local greasy spoon.  The owner of the restaurant was a big fan of Jon’s and he kept bringing us more food than we ordered, and would not stop, even though Jon begged him to do so.  At one point, he came over to the table with a massive box of baklava. The four of us laughed so hard, I spit my tea out of my mouth onto the wall of the booth.  I will never forget the look on Jon’s face as he screamed, “Tea is coming out of your nose!”  Another huge wave of laughter overtook us as we took in that information.  We could not even finish the food we HAD ordered, we were laughing so hard. The laughter only slightly subsided when we realized we had been charged for all the food we neither ordered nor wanted.

A key plot point in Pirates has to do with the character of Frederick  being born during a leap year.  So this year, when we had that extra day in February, I immediately thought of Simon Gallaher, who brilliantly brought Frederick to life in our production. So when Simon posted a familiar photo of the two of them on his Facebook page this past week,  I assumed I would be reading something fun having to do with a leap year birthday party.  When I realized that Simon’s post announced Jon’s passing, I foolishly started googling to prove that he was wrong. Sadly, I realized that the report was accurate, and we had lost our Pirate King.

I don’t know how many times my fellow cast members and I have talked about how we should have a reunion. We have now lost a few mates from that production, so regret has hit sharply at our lack of initiative. I hope I do get a chance to see my Pirates family again, and we can pour the Pirate Sherry.  It would be a glorious thing.  Hurrah for the Pirate King.










Actors who sing/Singers who act


Are all opera singers good actors?  Sadly, no.  Nathalie Desplat. Maria Callas, Renee Flemming, are some notable singers who have been applauded for their acting skills. Interestingly, all three of those sopranos have acted outside the opera stage.  Callas played Medea in Pasolini’s film of the same name, and Desplat originally trained as an actor before realizing she also had a voice. The gorgeous Renee Flemming made her Broadway debut just last year, in a non musical, that garnered some lovely reviews for a solid comedic performance of an over the top opera singer.

Certainly there have been musical theatre performers who moved on from opera to theatre. This is the usual scenario for performers who weigh singing AND acting to be of equal import. Harve Presnell, who began as an opera singer, performed in movie musicals, like The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Paint Your Wagon, and found critical acclaim in the third act of his life in dramatic roles; most notably, in the movie Fargo.

Marco Berti and the Burden of Success

This weekend I attended the HD Broadcast of Puccini’s Turandot. This lavish Zefferelli production has been a mainstay in the Met repertoire for almost 30 years.  It is unapologetic in its over the top treatment of the last opera Puccini wrote.  So grand is this production, that any opera singer would be forgiven for a large, over the top performance. Which is one reason why Marco Berti’s detached, low energy, distracted performance seemed so disturbingly out of place.

Someone must have told Signor Berti he only has to work when he is singing.  Why else would he hold the expression of a man looking at a bus schedule when Liu (played gloriously by Anita Hartig) is committing suicide right in front of him?

I was thinking that he was perhaps, saving himself, for the Nessun Dorma that was to come in the final act.  If that was the case, he apparently did not save enough.  He has this horrible vocal habit of hitting a lower note to bounce up to the high note, not once, not twice, but EACH AND EVERY time he hit a high note.  His Nessun Dorma was as disconnected as the rest of his performance,  and that prompted the couple sitting next to me to begin swearing.  Where is a head of cabbage when you need one?

Hey, it’s a Big Room

Performing on a massive  stage, like that of the Metropolitan Opera requires a large performance.  Subtlety does not travel beyond the pit in a venue of this size.  We tend to forgive opera singers when their gestures are exaggerated,  even if the performance journeys into the melodramatic.  Since operas are often built upon totally implausible plot lines, the singers are given the difficult task to draw the audience into a world of make believe, while delivering a vocal performance of repertoire that was written for a high level of virtuosity. It ain’t easy.

The HD broadcasts, give opera fans a close up view of the faces of the people on that stage, and THAT is a great opportunity for the audience.  We can see the eyes, the hands, the sweat on their brow.  We can breathe with them.  And while the soloists do the heavy lifting, we also see the faces of the unsung heroes of the opera stage; the chorus.

The Met chorus is a large group of completely committed, hard working, uncompromising, well trained, totally dedicated people, whose names we will never know.  When you compare these wonderful people to the snooze fest that was Marco Berti, it does make you stop and think.






Pearl Fishers

Going to the Metropolitan Opera is a wonderful thing.  I am happy to say that I have attended many operas in this wonderful place, and although I live close to New York, I chose to watch the HD broadcast at a local movie theatre this past weekend, and I have to say, it was a heck of a good time.  But let’s talk about the opera itself, first.

The last time the Met presented The Pearl Fishers, Caruso played the part of Nadir. That was over one hundred years ago.  Just WHY they waited so long to bring forth another production, I cannot tell you. However, it might have been worth the wait when you consider the high tech options now available to live theatre.  And, the Met took full advantage of many of these options to excellent results.  From the overture, where we see pearl divers swimming through the deep water, to the tsunami, when the deep waters devastate the village, we are treated to the very best that modern theatrical special effects can offer.

The duet between the two male leads in the Pearl Fishers, is one of the most beloved duets in operatic repertoire.  And with good reason. It is sumptuous.  Here, have a listen:



Many consider this the best recording of the duet.

The Met cast gives us Mariusz Kwiecien in the role of Zurga, and Matthew Polenazani as Nadir.  Their performance left this blogger in tears.

Nadir’s aria, is also a thing of great beauty.  Here is a performance by Nicolai Gedda.


Apparently, Diana Damrau was the one who encouraged the Met to bring this production (which began in London) to the Met.  Ms. Damrau was a lovely Leila, and her high notes are gorgeous. Her real life husband, Nicolas Teste played the high priest Nourabad.  (lucky girl)



Is it Over Yet?

On New Year’s Eve in 1985, I had just finished the National Tour of Camelot.  I was subletting an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen,  and my best friend Avril, came out to visit me on her way to London.  I was pregnant with my son Nick, and I was delighted to have my best friend with me at that time.

We were invited to a party at a restaurant in the Theatre District called Barrymore’s. Oh how I miss Barrymore’s!  It was a great place where theatrical types ate before curtain, after curtain, and it was comfy and convenient. It is also close enough to Time’s Square, that we could hear the insanity on that New Year’s Eve.

At one point, Avril thought it would be fun to just pop around the corner and see the million or so people who show up every year to see that ball drop. As we walked out the door, a drunken reveler fell into the front window of the  St. James Theatre, which was housing Bernadette Peters in Song and Dance at the time.  He was bleeding profusely and laughing his head off as the cops crowded around him, at which point, Avril said she had seen quite enough and was ready to go back into Barrymore’s and have dessert.

Shelly Winters was at that party, and I do not believe that I had ever seen a more depressed look on anyone’s face….ever.  I chatted with her briefly, thanking her for time that she had taken with me when I was in high school and my Drama Club came to see her in Minnie’s Boys on Broadway.  She had been told that there were theatre loving high school kids in the audience, and she told an usher to bring us down to the stage after the curtain came down. She talked with us about the show, the hard work, the joy, and she answered our questions sincerely and completely without effect.  It was a gesture of kindness that I have never forgotten.  I wanted to thank her for that, and let her know that I was profoundly moved by her generosity, and it was yet another reason why I chose to be in the profession. She seemed genuinely happy that I said that to her, and thanked ME for cheering her up.


I have had subsequent New Year’s Eves when I wore a face similar to that of Ms. Winter’s on that night.  I find the holiday difficult.  Sometimes the year that is coming to an end is so difficult that there is relief of its end, coupled with the unthinkable possibility that just because you bought a new calendar, there might be a continuance of the horror that  re-boots on the morning of January 1st.

Robbie Burnes seemed to know that we needed a sad little ditty to sing on this difficult evening, so he wrote Auld Lang Syne in 1788.  In a few hours, I will sing it again.  I find the song sadder and sadder as the years go by.  Since I am older,  I have simply outlived some of the people I have loved dearly.  Like Avril.

To my dear friends who are missing people this evening, I send love, and pray that I have the wherewithal to figure out if you want me to talk to you, or leave you alone.  I will sing the song for you.

We’ll take a cup o’ kindess yet, for Auld Lang Syne. 





The Once and Future King

As is usually the case, Broadway is playing host to a few London shows this season, most of them playing with large chunks, if not all,  of the original casts from the West End productions.

This weekend I decided to risk getting caught in the Christmas mobs that invade Manhattan each year, and catch the Saturday matinee of King Charles III, starring Tim Piggot-Smith in the title role of Charles.

Subtitled, “A Future History Play,”  it begins as Elizabeth II has died, and Prince Charles is now to ascend the throne. After meeting with a Labor Party Prime Minister, Charles is expected to accept a bill regarding privacy in the press. He is not happy about this, and some wickedly entertaining dialogue (and a bit of civil unrest) gets in the way of his coronation.

Tim Piggot-Smith is superb in the role of Charles, showing both strength and a bit of pouting while Margot Leicester is often hilarious as Camilla, without overplaying her role. Harry is predictably adorable as played by Richard Goulding, and William is all business in the hands of Oliver Chris.

I really loved the look of this play.  There are no ornate sets, as you might imagine for a play set inside Buckingham Palace.  The entire set is a brick wall, which curves along the back and the sides, and plays both inside and outside.  The various locations set up rather casually and the actors often go up or down the aisles. The lighting is dark and somber throughout, with some great candle lighting in several scenes that set beautifully  against the brick.  Live, brooding music is provided by a cello and an oboe.

The show is on a limited run, which began in September and is due to close at the end of January. A Sydney run of the play is due to begin in March of 2016 with Robert Powell in the role of Charles.

Unexpected Change

At the curtain call, in the middle of a standing ovation, Tim Piggot-Smith stepped forward.  I was expecting the usual Equity Fights Aids speech, but he threw a curve ball.

Usually when an understudy goes on, there is an announcement made, pre-curtain.  Sometimes, you get a little note in the Playbill as well.  At this performance, there was no such announcement.

The audience was delivering a standing ovation, when Mr. Piggot-Smith stepped forward to announce that the role of Jess (a young anti-royal who has a brief relationship with  Prince Harry) was played by an understudy, Rachel Spencer Hewitt. He explained that the actor who usually plays the role, was taken quite suddenly ill, and Ms. Spencer Hewitt sprang into action with no warning.  The audience gave her a rich round of applause, and the few audience members who were not yet standing, now stood.  The cast then turned to her, and applauded her while tears streamed down her face. Then, Mr. Piggot-Smith added that we had all just seen her Broadway debut.  At that point, I had a few tears running down my face as well. Rachel is a graduate of…you guessed it, Yale School of Drama.

Here is an ad for the London Production, which is precisely as it plays in New York.



Pulling a Shirley MacLaine

One of the most enduring  Broadway stories, is the one about Shirley MacLaine, who took over from an injured Carol Haney in The Pajama Game, and went on to be…well, Shirley MacLaine.

The Pajama Game, was Shirley MacLaine’s first Broadway show, and she was hired to sing and dance in the chorus and understudy for the much beloved, Carol Haney.  Haney broke her ankle very early in the run, and was out of the show for several weeks. During that time, MacLaine’s performance was seen by producers in New York and in Hollywood, and she was quickly signed to a Paramount contract.

In the movie, All About Eve, Ann Baxter plays Eve Harrington, a young actress who connives a sinister scheme to keep a Broadway star, played by Bette Davis out of New York so that she can go on in her place on a night when the critics are in to see the show.  In Applause, the musical version of the story, which starred Lauren Bacall in the Bette Davis role, the Broadway “gypsies” sing, “She pulled a Shirley MacLaine,” as they jealously acknowledge that she is no longer one of them.

Understudies are necessary.  I have been an understudy and I have had understudies. While I have never known or worked with an Eve Harrington, I would be lying if I said that things are always easy among actors and the person who has their own identical set of costumes just in case.  As an understudy, you don’t have the benefit of full cast rehearsals, and the idea of going on and making a mistake is terrifying. As the “overstudy” you can be concerned about the person going on and being better liked than you are in the role, which is one big reason actors are known to perform in a state of unwell, just shy of being in a coma.