A Philadelphia Saturday Night

Our plans for a recent Saturday evening came together quickly. Flipping through a newspaper we (my wife Sandy and I) saw a review of a play titled Spine. The play sounded good. Its theater was in Philadelphia’s central section, easy for us to reach from our home in the burbs. OK, Spine it would be. Deciding to have pre-show dinner near the theater, we looked for an eatery where we’d never been before. We clicked here and there on OpenTable and settled on Franky Bradley’s, a place we knew little about. A handful of hours later we arrived at FB’s at the appointed time, 6:15 PM, and the night began.

Some Philadelphians will recall Franky Bradley’s when it was a steakhouse and celebrity hangout and its first name was spelled Frankie. That was decades ago. In its most recent incarnation the place was a gay bar. Last year a new owner turned the property into a restaurant/bar/dance club, resurrecting the name (save for the spelling change) but nothing much else from the original FB’s. Only one steak is on the menu and I doubt if Franky’s is a celebrity hang.

Inside Franky Bradley's.
Inside Franky Bradley’s.

It’s a two-story establishment. A  music room cum bar occupies floor number two. That’s where late night DJ and dancing action takes place. Sandy and I took up a little bit of space on the ground level. There, dark wood tables and booths fill up the square footage not occupied by a large bar, and the walls are covered with wood carvings, a potpourri of signs and with moody, sensual oil paintings. We sat at a peripheral table. It gave us a good view of much of the room. The lights were low, the noise level high, the waitstaff young and friendly. Recorded music from the 1970s (David Bowie, disco tunes) swirled through the air. The place was mobbed, mostly with an under-40 crowd. Tucked away on narrow way-off-the-beaten-path Chancellor Street (1320 is the address), Franky Bradley’s seemed to be a hit, a destination. From my perspective here’s the deal: Sandy and I loved our meal there. And the vibes were a gas, you dig?

Bradley’s keeps the number of beverage and food selections on the modest side, which seems like a good idea to me. Man, this world is cluttered enough as it is. You could do a lot worse than ordering what we had. Liquid-wise, a toasty beer for me, Ellie’s Brown Ale from the Avery Brewing Company. And, for Sandy, a semi-dry and citrusy Spanish white wine that rocked, an Albarino (2013) from Ramon Bilbao vineyards.

Bottom plate: Arctic char with warm lentil salad and orange slices. Top plate: Ditto.
Bottom plate: Arctic char with warm lentil salad and orange slices. Top plate: Ditto.

Solid-wise, we shared a house salad built from powerful purple onions, three or four types of greens and a Banyuls vinaigrette dressing. “Banyuls?” you ask? Right, I hadn’t a clue either. But it was damn tasty. A minute ago I peered at a foodie’s website and learned that Banyuls vinegar is made from fancy grapes. I shoulda known. For entrées we each ordered pan-seared Arctic char, a thin fish that came out moist, just-right salty and just-right charred. The fish shared plate space with warm lentil salad and orange slices. I’m a sucker for a good lentil salad. In this case, cubed beets and diced carrots and peppers said hello to one another and to the lentils just the way I was hoping they would. Wouldn’t have minded staying at Franky Bradley’s for a couple more hours, testing the desserts, knocking back another Ellie’s or two. But Spine awaited.

A few moments before Spine began.
Ten minutes before Spine began.

Spine (running through March 6) is a 70 minute monologue first performed in 2014 in Scotland at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Its British author, Clara Brennan, probably is a rising star. Philadelphia’s Inis Nua Theatre Company has staged Spine’s first American production in the smaller (about 75 seats) of two new theaters created within the Drake apartment building (1512 Spruce Street) earlier this year. There’s no intermission, so visiting the loo pre-show ain’t a bad idea.

If I’m sure about anything, it’s that Spine is a whirlwind of words, a rant at times, a collection of colorful tales all recited by Amy, a London teenager struggling to find her way. Amy is not in the education pipeline, can’t hold jobs, has messy relationships with family and friends and recently has become a petty criminal. But she’s no dummy and lacks not for energy. One day this wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl, looking for a room to rent, knocks on the door of a home, in a good part of London, owned by very elderly Glenda. Glenda, an advocate for social justice, takes a liking to Amy and over time gives her barrelsful of counsel.

What’s Spine about? It’s about a lot of things, maybe too many. Brennan takes aim at what she sees as damaging policies by Britain’s Cameron-led government, bemoaning social welfare program cutbacks and the closing of libraries. She believes that young folks like Amy institutionally are ignored and rendered powerless. She feels that the Amys of the world are being deprived of knowledge, but that they yet might come to understand their plights and change them for the better.

Whew, that’s a lot for a play to bite off. And a lot for politically and sociologically semi-conscious characters like me to digest. But let me say this: My attention didn’t waver watching Spine. Emily R. Johnson commanded the minimally-furnished set, bringing Amy fully to life and, by extension, Glenda. When the play ended I shook my head in disbelief. I mean, how does anyone do what Johnson did, spewing a non-stop avalanche of words without a stumble? How can anyone remember all those words? I have trouble remembering the name of the street I live on. Impressed? You bet your sweet bippy I was and am.

But sometimes there’s a but, and I have one. Johnson, a non-Brit, adopted a deep deep Cockney accent. I didn’t understand half the words she spoke. “Huhhh, what?” I said to myself so often I almost started babbling. Sandy had the same problem, even worse. If you didn’t grow up in a workingclass London neighborhood I’m guessing you’d decipher the language not much better than we did. I think that Spine’s director should have decided to soften the blows for Philadelphia’s audiences by toning down the accent. As usual, though, nobody asked for my advice.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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Uncanny Valley, A New Play Performed In A Small Theater (I Like Small Theaters)

An early moment in Uncanny Valley (photo by InterAct Theatre Company)
An early moment in Uncanny Valley (photo by InterAct Theatre Company)

This past weekend my wife and I went with friends to see a new play, Uncanny Valley, at Philadelphia’s Adrienne Theatre. The Adrienne contains four small performance spaces within its floors. I felt right at home in the ground floor theater where Uncanny Valley was staged, because I like small theaters.

Thomas Gibbons wrote Uncanny Valley. He is playwright-in-residence for InterAct Theatre Company, one of the groups using the Adrienne’s rooms. Gibbons is a talented writer. Some of his plays, such as Permanent Collection and Bee-luther-hatchee, have examined America’s race relations in sharply-focused scenarios. Uncanny Valley finds Gibbons exploring what for him is new subject matter. The play revolves around the high tech lab creation, in the not-too-distant future, of an Artificial Intelligence humanoid who, through training and electronic wizardry, comes to appear, emote and think like actual flesh and blood.

I have a talent for missing points and for not fully grasping situations. I’ve no doubt that this might be true for my understanding of Uncanny Valley. Rightly or wrongly, what I mainly came away with by the end of the play are two notions. First, that devising an AI creature is risky, as unexpected consequences may occur down the line. And second, that some humans don’t want to analyze their emotional shortcomings. I can’t say that any of this broke new ground for me.

Still, I enjoyed Uncanny Valley quite a lot. The actors in this two character play, Frank X as the AI gent and Sally Mercer as an AI programmer, work their roles well. The story unfolds intriguingly and at a well-controlled pace. Gibbons’ dialogue is crisp and usually rings true.

I doubt, though, if I’d have had as good an experience if I had seen the play in a larger theater. InterAct’s theater at the Adrienne seats around 100. Its intimacy can’t but help allow the audience to be drawn in. At the start of the play, Frank X’s character, Julian, seems to be nothing more than a head poking out of a table. Julian’s other body parts haven’t been attached yet. Facing him sits Claire, the programmer. Claire is teaching rudimentary facial movements to Julian, whose training at this point obviously is in its infancy. I sat a mere 20 feet from the stage, a fascinated witness to these early proceedings. From 75 or more feet away, I wouldn’t have felt as involved.

Is a smaller theater always better than a bigger? Generally I’d say yes, especially for dramas and comedies. No question that I tend to opt for the small, where I almost always have a decent or better-than-decent time, despite any deficiencies in acting or script. Being close to the action makes up a good bit for those drawbacks.

At larger places, the experience, at least for me, is more hit or miss. A few years ago I loved the musical Monty Python’s Spamalot at Philadelphia’s very roomy Academy of Music. It seats 2,900. I was at least 100 feet from the actors. So much was happening on stage with a dizzying parade of characters, though, that distance from the stage allowed visual perspective. Plus, the theater crew had the sound balanced well, always a good thing.

Not the case, unfortunately, for In The Heights, a musical my wife and I took in a year or two ago. We saw it at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre, which claims the title of America’s oldest theater (it began in 1809). The Walnut seats 1,000. We were in the mezzanine, hardly a mile from the stage, but not close enough. That wouldn’t have mattered as much if the sound quality had been good. It wasn’t. The dialogue was hard to make out, despite the actors being mic-ed. The musical numbers were a sonic mess, lyrics usually lost in a high decibel onslaught of instruments. This wasn’t a case of a boomer’s bad hearing. A few people seated near us, and a good bit younger than us, grumbled about the audio too.