Best of Manhattan 2011: Arts & Entertainment

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Best Immersive Theatrical Production: Sleep No More
530 W. 27th St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.)
www.sleepnomorenyc.com
Voyeuristic thrills. Venetian carnival masks. Wicked murderesses in bloodstained bathtubs. And that’s just the froth of the witch’s brew that Punchdrunk is serving up with Sleep No More, a Macbeth-inspired participatory theater experience that’s like nothing you would recognize from 10th grade English class. With six floors and over 100 rooms as your playground, you’re not watching the action but becoming a part of it. As you rifle through clues and follow Duncan down twisting, labyrinthine corridors to his doom, you’ll find yourself seduced—not only by witches in scarlet Art Deco-era evening gowns but by the whole delicious phantasmagoria. —

Best Decadent Nightlife Experience: Dances of Vice
www.dancesofvice.com
It’s midnight on a Saturday and you’ve wandered straight into what can only be described as the black-and-white wonderland of an Edward Gorey illustration. No, you’re not dreaming, just lost in the sumptuous, anachronistic surreality that is a Dances of Vice event. From baroque-flavored masquerade balls to Victorian murder mystery spectacles to Blade Runner-inspired afterparties, Dances of Vice makes you feel the way Charlie did after he unwrapped the golden ticket.

Best Broadway Quality Theater at a Tenth the Price: Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music, Art and the Performing Arts
100 Amsterdam Ave. (at 65th St., behind Lincoln Center)
www.laguardiahs.org
Pssst. Students at Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music, Art and the Performing Arts (the Fame school) are putting on Guys and Dolls from Dec. 8-18, and it only costs $20 for adults and $10 for students! Last year’s school musical, Hairspray, electrified sold-out audiences with its Broadway-quality singing, dancing, acting and set design—and musical direction and choreography by professionals Larry Pressgrove and Ben Hartley. But the annual musical is only one of several excellent productions by LaG students. On Nov. 4, you can hear the smooth-as-velvet Senior Jazz Band and rousing symphonic band for $10. There are choral events, gospel concerts, dramas, art shows, dance showcases and even operettas. You just might see the next Jennifer Aniston, Tichina Arnold, Laurence Fishburne or Al Pacino (all LaGuardia alums) take the stage.

Best Sexual Experience with Your Clothes On: Stripped Stories
Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, 307 W. 26th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.)
www.ucbtheatre.com
Remember the thrill of playing “never have I ever” in the basement of your best friend’s home after homecoming? Bring that game full circle once a month and join in for a few rounds with 200 fellow pleasure seekers. Giulia Rozzi and Margot Leitman host Stripped Stories, a fun-loving, sex-themed storytelling show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. The Chelsea location is home base for the duo, who tour with Stripped Stories around the U.S. The show encourages audience members to laugh at their own sexual misfortune through comedians revealing their own on stage. At the end of the night, the audience is asked to join in for an interactive audience game of “never have I ever.” The rules are simple: Everyone starts standing up, the hosts ask a question and if you’re a no, you sit down. The winner is the last person standing, who is then interviewed about their sexual escapades on stage.

Best Uptown/Downtown Mash-Up: PopRally at MoMA
11 W. 53rd St. (at 6th Ave.)
www.moma.org
A series of collaborations between artists working in different mediums, PopRally brings the sort of cutting-edge programming usually left to Downtown warehouse parties to the upscale environs of the Museum of Modern Art. Past events have included a screening of the film Old Joy paired with a live performance by indie stalwarts Yo La Tengo, an evening of skateboarding videos, after-dark gallery tours and an evening of art trivia hosted by artist Ryan McNamara and DJed by hot Brooklyn band Tanlines. This beingthe Modern, it’s a bit more upscale than your average night out, but take that as a challenge and dress up, have a nice dinner first and soak in the sort of cultural cocktail that it would be impossible to find anywhere else.

Best Off-Off-Broadway Theater Company: Partial Comfort Productions partialcomfort.org
You get Uptown quality for Downtown prices with this nearly 10-year-old theater troupe, currently on a roll after a trio of trenchant works: Thomas Bradshaw’s The Bereaved, Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise and company co-founder Chad Beckim’s After. (Molly Pearson is Partial Comfort’s other parent.) PCP—which has an ongoing residence at Alphabet City’s Wild Project—prides itself on presenting fresh plays that refrain from giving easy answers and quick resolutions. These plays examine the quiet corners of human emotion and do it in ways that are wholly accessible and entertaining. The only thing not genuine is the name—when it comes to a salve for the theatergoing soul, these guys go all the way.

Best Place to See the Next Big Band: (Le) Poisson Rouge
158 Bleecker St. (betw. LaGuardia Pl. & Thompson St.)
www.lepoissonrouge.com
(Le) Poisson Rouge (French for “The Red Fish”) is a veritable cornucopia of nightlife and entertainment options. Concert hall, nightclub, karaoke lounge, art/poetry/fiction gallery, cabaret—you name it, they host it. But particular recognition goes to their concert hall for regularly showcasing up-and-coming bands at an affordable price (the majority of their shows are just $15). In the past year, (Le) Poisson Rouge has featured buzzworthy acts like Beach House, Dan Deacon, Lykke Li and the ever-so-trendy Florence and the Machine. Occasionally, they even get the opportunity to showcase major performers like Paul Simon and Lou Reed (these shows are generally attached to a benefit or charity and are a bit more expensive). But the true price of a concert lies beyond just the cost of the ticket, and (Le) Poisson Rouge accommodates accordingly by serving up some cheap drink deals like $3 Rolling Rocks and $5 well drinks.

Best Place to Keep the Ghosts of Broadway Past Alive: Musical Mondays at Splash
50 W. 17th St. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.)
www.splashbar.com
Carol Channing, Hugh Jackman and Mary Martin never got together and threw back kamikaze shots—at least, not to our knowledge. But video jockey John Bantay (a Broadway baby himself, having recently appeared in the revival of The Ritz) provides the next best thing for rabid show tune fans on Monday nights at Splash Bar, with an encyclopedic vault of musical songs on celluloid. Crowds rock out to such staples as Wicked’s “Defying Gravity,” Funny Girl’s “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” The Drowsy Chaperone’s “Show Off” and even the Jersey Boys medley from the 2006 Tony Awards telecast. You can also catch recordings of musical numbers from films like Little Shop of Horrors, Pennies From Heaven and The Wiz. Famous fans like Christina Applegate, Kristen Chenoweth, Cheyenne Jackson and La LuPone have even been known to turn out. And remember, newbies: The show ain’t over until Jennifer Holliday sings.

Best-Kept Theater Secrets: Susan Louise O’Connor and Will Rogers
These two marvelous New York actors rarely stop working and yet have managed to stay under the radar, charting a course that’s a testament to both their impressive range and stunning depth along the way. Take O’Connor’s incisive work last spring in Kari Bentley-Quinn’s Paper Cranes at Packawallop Productions and compare it to her zany antics in Joshua Grenrock and Catherine Schreiber’s Desperate Writers, the show that followed merely days after the close of Cranes. Rogers embodied a similar one-two punch, bounding from his subtle work as a Harvard undergrad getting an unintentional education in Classic Stage Company’s Unnatural Acts to turn in the sharpest performance in Jeff Talbott’s The Submission at MCC Theater. Both have played a litany of roles with effortless grace and have never stolen the spotlight. It’s time that spotlight shone on them.

Best Exhibit to Stand in Line For: De Kooning: A Retrospective at MoMA
11 W. 53rd St. (at 6th Ave.)
www.moma.org
Yeah, it was the Alexander McQueen exhibit at The Met that broke records with their labyrinthine lines this summer, and it was an interesting, if anemic, showcase. At the same time, though, it conflated fashion with costume design, two worthy but distinct areas of art. This MoMA exhibit is on sturdier artistic footing. It makes a thorough case for the many merits of abstract expressionist art and why Willem De Kooning might just be their best representative—even more so than his more famous colleague, Jackson Pollock. Organized by John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture, the retrospective covers the entirety of the Dutch artist’s seven-decade-long career. This is the rare art exhibit whose works are powerfully palpable, justifying every scrape, line and brushstroke. It demonstrates how de Kooning’s oeuvre wasn’t just a reflection of his own life but of everyone’s.

Best Playwright We Hope Never Gets Co-Opted by Hollywood: Crystal Skillman
Awards and accolades have a habit of continuously being flung in the direction of Skillman, the unconventional and uncompromising scribe of such Downtown successes as Nobody, Birthday, Crawl, The Vigil or the Guided Cradle and Cut. Skillman has a unique voice, both irreverent and soulful, and her plays are of-the-moment instant classics. She is unafraid of challenges and has experimented with such formats as the Western, musicals and graphic novel adaptation. There is seemingly no world this exemplary talent cannot create within the sandbox of her own mind—which begets the fear that one day the tempting hand of Hollywood will come calling. Let’s hope that day is far away—we need Skillman here to help keep New York theater organic for a long time to come.

Best Underground Strip Club: Saint Venus Theater
www.saintvenustheater.com
You need to apply to get on the invite list to this elite traveling strip club. Parties are hosted at a rotating roster of destinations, and the only way to find out where is to be accepted and receive their weekly email. Each party requires a $40 admission, which includes 2-for-1 drinks and a complimentary lap dance. Yay! Once past the doorman, a bevy of beauties await, and it is the girls who make this pole worth dancing. Saint Venus holds casting sessions looking for the best and the brightest, so if you go to Columbia or NYU and want to check it out, be prepared to run into some scantily clad classmates.

Best Video Rental Store (Yes, They Still Exist): Video Room
300 Rector Pl.(at Rector Park) or 1403 3rd Ave.(betw. 79th & 80th Sts.), 212-962-6400 or 212-879-5333
This is a confusing time for home video entertainment. Blockbuster is dead, signaling the end of the chain movie rental store as we know it. However, the combined price increase for Netflix’s DVD service coupled with their paltry online streaming selection makes one pine for the days of the corner video hut. Keep hope alive, children! The video store lives! One of the best remaining rental stores in the city, Video Room, is carrying on as if it was 1985. With two locations (one on Rector Street in Battery Park City and the other on Third Avenue on the Upper East Side), this place has every movie. Seriously. And if it doesn’t exist on DVD, they’ll have it on VHS. Yes, they carry over 12,000 titles on video cassette. As if they weren’t awesome enough already, they also deliver. Fire up those VCRs and set your time machines to 198-awesome!

Best Venue to See ’90s Relics: Mercury Lounge
217 E. Houston St. (betw. Essex & Ludlow Sts.)
www.mercuryloungenyc.com
Anyone suffering from a lack of moping, guitar fuzz and twitchingly catchy choruses in their lives should head directly for Mercury Lounge. Over the last 12 months, the LES stalwart has played host to such ’90s alterna-rock icons as J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., Juliana Hatfield and Evan Dando of The Lemonheads, among others. The intimate back room with its pleasantly cluttered, lower-than-average stage is small enough to keep from intimidating skittish performers who may not have been on stage in over a decade. Plus, the only way on and off the stage is through the crowd—dust off your back issues of Sassy and bring them in for an autograph. Strangely, there’s less plaid here than in any Bushwick hangout—kids these days.

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