Guest Theatre Review: “Fish Men,” at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Features Washington Square Park Chess Area as Backdrop To “Riveting” Story and Performances

Fish Men

This is a guest post and theatre review by Linda Zises of the currently-running Chicago-based “Fish Men.”

Fish Men, the latest play by Cándido Tirado at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, is an ambitious venture inspired by New York City’s Washington Square Park Chess area in the aftermath of the tragic 9/11 attack on the City.

Using eight characters, each one drawn from New York City’s ethnically rich melting pot, the play moves from one moment to another, one group to another, their allegiances ever changing, with an ease that only a veteran playwright can achieve. Clearly, Tirado is a master of the art.

Each character is a chess hustler — that’s why they are in the park, to make a living or a killing by playing chess. What unites them is their historical roots as holocaust survivors. The rage and revenge that plagues each character looks for relief in the “fish men.” The “fish” is the weak player, the one the others hope to make their prey. But the fish is ever changing.

As the intensity of the play heightens, the physical space designated for chess in Washington Square Park seems to contract, making a dramatic statement about the park, the City, and a game where there is always a loser, a fish.

The acting in Fish Men is superb. After a play or movie has ended, I often can’t remember which actor played which part. But the intensity of the actors, and the playwright’s ability to hear and recreate real people was so compelling that I had no such problem. Even now as I write, I remember them well.

The stage design with the recreated chess area placed in the center, surrounded by arena type seating, was perfect for this play. Although I sat in the front row at the level of the stage, I often felt as if I was looking down on the actors in a panoramic view of the action.

The wealth of information, facts on world politics that enriches the actors’ narrative was extraordinary and the passion conveyed was almost overwhelming. There is a thin line between being profound and being preachy in a play.  I think the first act was truly profound and incredibly clever. Riveting is my adjective of choice.

In the second act, this quality was compromised, due to, I think, the nature of the core material. It was so highly charged; watching the actors unravel, showing what inspired their fanaticism with a game of chess, that it bordered on the preachy side of the divide.

It takes trust of an audience to lower the passion level of the content enough to allow the audience to fill in much of what is presented in explicit terms. If the second act were condensed into less than an hour, this would have brought a more focused and intense experience of the material.

The ambitious Fish Men brings together world politics, Reuben Fine’s psychoanalytic interpretation of the game, the human need to be together – as opposed to playing with a machine – and what informs the fanatic player of chess. Most importantly, this is a play about our need to be together, to talk to one another, to be in the world rather than alone and lonely with only our fantasies to inform our life choices.

Fish Men should be seen by a variety of audiences. It’s perfect for school performances, park productions, perfect for the incarcerated many, and lends itself to a Circle in the Square-type production where people can feel as if they too can play chess, especially those who never have. Chess is, after all, a game, a game of life. And how we play it makes all the difference between life, death and the violent or pacifist-loving ways in which human nature ultimately comes to the fore.

*Reading the Goodman Playbill is an important part of the performance.  Without the Glossary much of the play’s depth is compromised.

– Linda Zises

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** Fish Men at the Goodman Theater in Chicago opened April 7th with performances running through May 6th.

Note: I spoke with playwright Cándido Tirado last week about his experiences at the Chess Plaza at Washington Square Park which informs and motivated the creation of the play. That piece to follow! – cathryn

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Pre-Babbo, Remembering The Coach House Restaurant on Waverly, and How Babbo Came to Be

Vanity Fair has a preview in their May issue of Restaurant Man, a memoir by restauranteur (and Master Chef judge) Joe Bastianich who “recounts his evolution from being the son of a Queens-based working-class restaurant owner to prevailing over New York City’s most mouth-watering gourmet Italian restaurants.” This includes popular Babbo near Washington Square and Eataly, among others. Reading the VF excerpt was interesting for its story of how Babbo came to be, the author’s partnership with Mario Batali, and an interesting anecdote about real estate in New York City. Mr. Bastianich writes of the vacant (at the time) Coach House restaurant which lead me to wonder about this “landmark” institution that preceded Babbo and closed in 1993.

Upon its official closing, in “Neighborhood Report: Greenwich Village — An Appreciation; After 44 Years and 4 Proud Stars, Dinner Is Over at the Coach House,” the New York Times wrote:

The restaurant’s setting was as warm and restorative as a wood stove in January: brick and wood-paneled walls, red leather banquettes, brass chandeliers, handsome 19th-century oil paintings, and gentle lighting. Celebrities and food mavens from around the country made a point of visiting the Coach House over the years. Perhaps the most prominent patron was James Beard, the celebrated food writer and gourmand who made a tradition of dining there every Christmas Eve.

From the Restaurant-ing blog:

At one point, when [Beard] had become more prosperous, he ate almost nightly for a solid month at one of his regular haunts, the Coach House near his home in Greenwich Village, where his favorite dishes included corn sticks, black bean soup, and mutton chops.

The Coach House was open for 44 years in its Waverly Place location and closed in 1993. (Thankfully, and perhaps unusually, at least it would be for today, it was not because of landlord issues — in this case, that’s due to the fact that the owner of the restaurant also owned the building.)

Also from the New York Times:

Housed in a 19th-century coach house just off Washington Square, on what was once the estate of the Wanamaker family, the restaurant was created in 1949 by Leon Lianides, a meticulous and genteel man who had a hand in every aspect of the business, from menu planning to wine selection and decor. The 76-year-old Mr. Lianides, who has been in failing health in recent years, never reopened the restaurant after closing for vacation last summer.

The space was vacant for close to five years until Mr. Batali and Mr. Bastianich took over the space in 1998.

The story of how that came to be from the forthcoming book via Vanity Fair:

Mario [Batali] was totally irreverent in his style, kind of a hippie like me, but a lot farther out than I was willing to go. He was from Seattle but had gone to school at Rutgers in New Jersey. He used to deal weed in college, wearing a robe and genie shoes, and he worked at a place called Stuff Yer Face Pizza. He was a skinny version of what he is now. He wasn’t wearing the clogs yet, but always the shorts. That was his signature—cargo shorts and sneakers. By then I had eased into some kind of post-bachelor, urban-contemporary bon vivant. Mostly I looked as if I owned a successful restaurant. Mario looked like he was on his way to a Phish concert. We made a good pair.

One night we were coming from dinner somewhere and were walking down Waverly Place in Greenwich Village, by Washington Square Park, and we saw the old Coach House restaurant all boarded up with a big “for rent” sign.

We were just having fun, not really planning on opening a restaurant, but somehow we got the inspiration to start what we thought would be the perfect restaurant, where we would have no economic ambitions and just kind of fulfill the pure aspiration of creating the ideal environment for eating and drinking and expressing our passion for Italy and all things Italian. You can bet that Restaurant Man has a few in him when he starts thinking like this. And that was the birth of Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca.

We didn’t need to make money, we were flush—both of our restaurants, Becco and Po, were doing better than we could have dreamed—and so suddenly there was a purity of spirit and ideas, a freedom, almost an irreverence toward what was standard or expected. Sometimes the greatest commerce comes from a lack of commerce, we declared, contrary to every truism that Restaurant Man has ever preached or lived by. We didn’t exactly have our feet planted too firmly when we got to blue-skying this fantasy—we were just thinking about this great new idea for an Italian restaurant, wine and food in the perfect setting, and the Coach House was calling our names. …

We called the number on the “for rent” sign and met with this guy who was like the sultan of Albanian-Muslim restaurant slumlords in New York—he wore tracksuits and had a fucking scimitar hanging on his wall, and this is where we learned another important lesson in the New York restaurant business: every restaurant opens based on a real-estate deal. Eventually we’d open places just because we could get the location, before we even had a concept. When it comes to you, you don’t say no. Like George Costanza and parking spaces. You see it, you take it, because it’s not apt to happen again. Not only did we get the lease, but we were able to sneak in this option-to-buy-the-building clause, because the landlord thought we were just a couple of mooks, doomed to fail, who were never going to have the money to close the deal, so he put it in there at a fixed price. A few years later, we bought it.

It’s a good read what I read thus far and a good New York story. It’s a lit-tle strange that he refers to himself as “the Restaurant Man.” ? But anyway, in 1998, when Babbo first opened, Mr. Bastianich told the New York Times, “We plan a restaurant that will be elegant but not expensive.'”

On Yelp, Babbo has the highest price rating $$$$ – $61 and up.

Anyone who experienced the Coach House out there? Would love to hear your recollections.

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A bonus — Recipe: Coach House Chocolate Cake from Bon Appetit

The Commercialization of Earth Day

A piece I wrote for Earth Day (it’s the 42nd today) after visiting the Earth Day Fair at Grand Central Station and reflecting on the day; at my other blog, the B-girl Guide:

The Commercialization of Earth Day: “Saving” The Environment; What We Can Do About It

If you missed Pillow Fight Day at Washington Square Park 2012 or Wanted to Catch it on Video, Here’s your Chance…

If you wanted to see what Pillow Fight Day looked like this year – first year at WSP – what the vibe is in general, or were there and wanted to relive the experience, here is your chance! In a strange way, it does look like fun.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Courtesy of HoopLaHa.com (a site whose tag line is “Life With a Smile” and is comprised of updated, uplifting videos).

Art Blog Looks at Art Featuring Washington Square Park

John Sloan 1925

An art blog put together by British artist Poul Webb takes a look at art which has featured Washington Square. Webb has put together quite a collection of artwork that features the Park. He reflects, “I’ve noticed that a lot of American artists, particularly those associated with New York City, like the Ashcan School, have at one time or another undertaken paintings and drawings of Washington Square Park, so I thought I’d do a short post on that subject.”

In this etching above, look where Garibaldi once was!

Previously at WSP Blog:

* Portrait: Washington Square, 1910 — William Glackens

Worth Reading: Metropolis Mag — “The Shell Game” — on NYU Mega-Expansion Plan 2031

Via Metropolis Mag:
The Shell Game
By Martin C. Pedersen

Friday, April 13, 2012 9:30 am

New York University announced yesterday that it was scaling back its controversial plans for expansion by “almost a fifth.” Wow, now that’s a significant number, you might think, if you didn’t already know how these cynical games are played. The school had originally proposed adding 2.5-million-square feet of dorms, classrooms and commercial space to the two superblocks it owns south of Washington Square Park. A couple of new towers (designed by Toshiko Mori and Grimshaw Architects) were part of the plan.

Rendering

On the face of it, the announcement was in response to local opposition. But this is really a move straight from the developer’s playbook. In honor of the client here, let’s call it “Gamesmanship 101.” 

Here is how it works: 1) propose a humongous, X-million-square foot project; 2) get predictably hammered by outraged community groups who claim it will ruin the neighborhood; 3) appear to re-group or “go back to the drawing board”; 4) allow a decent interval of time to elapse (you’re busy processing all of the “neighborhood concerns”); and 5) roll out a slightly modified new plan (still too damn big, of course, but not quite as bloated as the original) that appears to be in response to local “input,” but is in fact very close to the internal number you were aiming for all along.

Think of it as a high stakes poker game, with numbers and renderings and zoning variances as the chips. You want 2-million square feet of new construction approved in the Village? First ask for 2 and a half million. (Oh, it also doesn’t hurt to have most of the elected officials in your back pocket.)

Next Up for NYU Expansion “2031” —

Next steps on NYU 2031 (yes, Borough President Scott Stringer announced today a modest reduction in the plan which means little) —

From Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation:

Come to the City Planning Commission public hearing on the NYU plan Wednesday, April 25th at 10 am at the Museum of the American Indian, at 1 Bowling Green (Broadway at Battery Place/State Street near Battery Park; 4/5 to Bowling Green or N/R to Whitehall Street)

More in the news:

Capital NY: Faculty Steps up Opposition (Extensive piece.)

Washington Square News: University curtails expansion plans in Village
(From NYU’s daily student newspaper. Title is misleading but they included good and informative quotes from those in ‘opposition’ to the plan.)

Surprise! Mayor Michael Bloomberg Expresses Support for NYU Massive Expansion in the Village – Will this Help or Hurt the University?

(Updated)

NY1 reports: Mayor Bloomberg Stands By NYU’s Greenwich Village Expansion Plans

Why does this feel like term limits all over again? The daily papers all supporting an unsustainable and undesired position completely opposite the wishes of most New Yorkers. The billionaire Mayor on the wrong side. Again. And then, all his city agencies – in this case, the Planning Commission and City Council – will inevitably just fall in line. It’s clear that Bloomberg had already expressed behind the scenes his support of the plan. Mike is always in favor of anything that benefits the developers and corporations. And we know that NYU President John Sexton jumped down to City Hall to support granting no limit of Bloomberg’s term in his up-is-down testimony. As I wrote at the time, “More Bloomberg. More NYU.”

It’s sort of horrifying – if it wasn’t so real.

Hopefully, things can be learned by those issues on which Bloomberg has not “won.” Can someone remind me what those are? I know there have been a few. Westside Stadium, for one. Others? (And when I say “won,” Bloomberg hasn’t really “won” on any of these issues, as much as subverted the democratic process and bought influence somehow – it’s never a “fair” fight.)

Previously at WSP Blog:

* The Blanding of New York City: Why It’s Time for Mayor Mike to Go

* Why Mayor Bloomberg Wants Redesign of Washington Square Park

Substantive Letters’ Response in Rebuttal to Times’ Endorsement of NYU Massive Expansion

Four letters appeared in response to the March 31st-April 1st Editorial by the New York Times which supported NYU’s massive expansion plan “2031”; all in rebuttal to the editorial and against the plan (the first two letters written by NYU professors):

The Fight Over N.Y.U.’s Expansion Plan
Published: April 6, 2012

To the Editor:

In your April 1 editorial “Let N.Y.U. Expand in Its Backyard,” you claim that New York University “needs to expand” and has “mostly made its case for the extra room.” But surely that is only relevant if the means used to create the “extra room” don’t interfere with the university’s ability to fulfill its educational mission. Bigger is not always better for what a university does.

Fearing the effect that the prospect of living 20 years on a construction site is likely to have on its ability to retain and attract top faculty, the university’s politics department, at a March 27 meeting, indicated its opposition to N.Y.U.’s expansion plan by a vote of 27 to 2. Several other departments will be holding similar meetings.

When it comes to fulfilling the educational mission of a university, it is not the board of trustees, or the president it appoints, but the faculty who are the best judges of what is needed and what is downright harmful. That makes it doubly unfortunate that most of the media have ignored or trivialized our views.

BERTELL OLLMAN
New York, April 1, 2012

The writer is a professor of politics at New York University.

To the Editor:

Many, many N.Y.U. faculty members oppose this plan, but not because we’re reactive Nimbys. Instead, we’re worried about the financial and academic health of our university, which we believe will be negatively affected by this oversized plan.

We’re worried about the health of the tenants who live in the superblocks and who will endure 20 years of nonstop construction noise, dust and the army of rats expected to be unsettled by the big dig. Finally, we’re worried about the architectural and environmental health of a beloved neighborhood.

Ironically, N.Y.U.’s building plan would do devastating harm to the very neighborhood that is part of its sales pitch to prospective students. N.Y.U. is a vital part of Greenwich Village. But it cannot be allowed to tower over it — literally or figuratively.

ANN PELLEGRINI
New York, April 2, 2012

The writer is a professor of performance studies and religious studies at New York University.

To the Editor:

I was shocked and disappointed to see the position you took in favor of N.Y.U.’s proposed expansion in Greenwich Village.

I know of no one living in the community who supports this plan. It would have an absolutely disastrous effect on the immediate neighborhood and indeed on the wider Village community. I lived for 38 years near the two superblocks where N.Y.U. proposes to expand and know how devastating these changes would be.

Community Board 1 has invited N.Y.U. to expand in the financial district. This is a perfect solution, building in a neighborhood that could use more activity and more people, and protecting a neighborhood that cannot sustain the kind of onslaught that the expansion would entail.

EVE STUART

New York, April 2, 2012

To the Editor:

I agree that N.Y.U. has to expand. But so far it has refused to discuss options that would reduce the plan’s overwhelming impact on our neighborhood. I hope that N.Y.U. takes to heart your point that the current design should be a negotiating position.

More than 40 businesses have joined together to raise concerns about this proposal because while we see many benefits of a significantly scaled-down expansion, we also recognize that the current Midtown-like plans would overwhelm the community.

N.Y.U. should, in good faith, negotiate with our elected officials to find a common-sense solution that significantly reduces the proposed density, expands opportunities for local businesses, creates accessible open space and adds infrastructure improvements.

JUDY PAUL

(Note: Judy Paul is the proprietress of the Washington Square Hotel.)

51st Anniversary of the Washington Square Folk Riots

That Day near the Arch

Re-posted; Originally Published April 14, 2011 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary last year —

Last month, I wrote of a scheduled event at Washington Square Park April 9th to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the “Washington Square Folk Riots.” In the end, this event did not happen. Apparently, there was some disharmony between Izzy Young, a key figure of that day, and the organizer, Russell Hicks. Young canceled plans to come to NY from Sweden and Hicks then unfortunately canceled the event.

National Public Radio (NPR) did a piece that day on the 50th Anniversary —  “How the Beatnik Riot Helped Kick Off the ’60’s” :

Today, anybody can play music in Washington Square Park. But back then, city law required that you have a permit. That was really just a formality — until the spring of 1961 when the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner Newbold Morris rejected the folkies’ application with no explanation.

But that didn’t stop [David Bennett] Cohen and a few hundred of his new friends from showing up to protest the denial.

“We came anyway,” Cohen says. “We never expected to get beat up, or arrested. I mean, how stupid can you be?”

Filmmaker Dan Drasin also came along, bringing some video equipment he’d borrowed from his bosses, cinema verite pioneers D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles.

“I’d heard about this upcoming demonstration and thought, ‘Well, it would make a nice little subject for a documentary,'” Drasin says.

Fighting For The ‘Right To Sing’

In 1961, Izzy Young was running the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street, a few blocks away from the park. At the time, it was the heart of the Greenwich Village folk scene — a hangout for amateurs and professionals, including Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk.

Young was the one who applied for the Washington Square Park permit in the first place, and when it was rejected he helped organize the protest.

You can watch Dan Drasin’s 17 minute film, “Sunday” (note: this appears to have been moved; will try to locate and reinsert correct link) about events of that day. I had some trouble watching – the video kept stopping – but you’ll notice that, except for around the playground, there is a fence-less Washington Square Park.

Note: See original post for comments about cancellation of event and more.

* More history: WSP Blog on the 50th Anniversary of Washington Square Folk Riot April 9th; Community Board 2 to Discuss Commemorative Event

Photo: Harvey Zucker