Month: May 2015

Drama Review: No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre

“Hell-is other people!” Garcin exclaimed. To be trapped it a room until the day-after-the –end-of-eternity with the three characters from No Exit, it would be. In this iconoclastic play, Jean-Paul Sartre constructed a complex paradigm for eternal damnation. His version lacked the expected fire, brimstone and horned guy with a pitchfork. Inez observed: “We’ll serve as torturers for each other.” (Page 17) How’s that for perdition?

“A drawing room in the Second Empire style” comprised this “hell”. (Page 3) It contained three sofas, a “massive bronze ornament” on the mantelpiece, and a door with a bell. Sometimes the latter worked, other times it didn’t. I applaud Sartre for coming up with a unique take. Most authors and playwrights would’ve “borrowed” Dante’s version from The Inferno.  This dramatist brilliantly exercised his imagination. (Let this be a lesson to the rest of us authors out there.)

The depth of the characters impressed me. The playwright didn’t resort to clichés or banalities, here. Each one entailed a great deal of intricacy and thought. In life Garcin ran a pacifist newspaper. Inez’s lesbian sexual orientation no doubt shocked audiences when the play premiered in 1944. Estelle showed her vanity upon realizing the room lacked a mirror. The drama developed as these characters attempted to discover why they ended up in Hell. I really liked the layers the playwright added to their stories. I thought the development outstanding, also. I didn’t read any bland exposition in the text.

I don’t like to give away spoilers, but I really enjoyed Garcin’s painful moment of self-discovery. I might be guilty of some schadenfreude here. I take solace in the fact I experienced it because of a fictional character.

Garcin: Can one possibly be a coward when one’s deliberately courted danger at every turn? And can one judge a life by a single action?

Inez: Why not? For thirty years you dreamt you were a hero, and condoned a thousand petty lapses—because a hero, of course, can do no wrong. An easy method, obviously. The a day came when you were up against it, the red light of real danger—and you took the train to Mexico. (Page 43)

Ouch! That was raw; but, then again, this was Hell.

I also enjoyed the interesting plot twist near the final curtain. Throughout the play the characters couldn’t open the door. This added to the theme that each couldn’t escape each other’s company. Near the end of the drama the door opened. None of the characters chose to leave. It made me wonder if the playwright included a “Hell is ourselves” subtext.

I did have one issue with No Exit.  Several times characters referred to the bronze ornament on the mantelpiece. At no point did anyone describe it. My curiosity piqued as to what it was, exactly. I’m not sure if Sartre left it vague so the show’s directors had some leeway with it. At any rate, based on the distinct personality types the characters showed, I would’ve liked a vivid depiction of the bronze ornament.

No Exit is just as inimitable today as it was when it premiered in 1944. I’d encourage those interested in either drama or literature to experience it. After all: unlike the characters, readers have the option of leaving the room should they find it too unpleasant.   

Book Review: The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo Jose Cela

Camilo Jose Cela crafted an outstanding novel about the results of a sorrowful life. He presented his tale through the writings of the protagonist as he awaited a death sentence. It enabled me to really connect with Pascual Duarte and understand his mindset and motivations. I applaud the author on his excellent choice of narration.

I found the beginning of The Family of Pascual Duarte the best I’ve ever read. Cela opened with a “Preliminary Note from the Transcriber”. He followed up with “Duarte’s Letter to the First Recipient of His Manuscript”. The author wrote both of them so convincingly that I initially thought this a work of non-fiction. That’s not an easy feat to achieve.

While Duarte freely resorted to violence, I could still empathize with the character. During his youth, his father died from rabies. (Page 41) When his 10 year old brother passed away his mother didn’t cry. This event fueled his anger and resentment. (Page 46) Things didn’t get much better for poor Duarte. A horse threw his pregnant wife off its back. This caused his first child to abort. (Page 80) His second son passed away at 11 months. (Page 88) Before killing the man who seduced his wife, the victim asked if Duarte thought his wife still loved him. (Page 129) You’ve got to think the guy had it coming to him just for being stupid.

The blurb on the back of the book mentioned that critics have compared Pascual Duarte to the narrator in Albert Camus’ The Stranger. I disagree. While the author told the story through the protagonists’ eyes, I could understand his motivations for his violent behavior. For instance: Duarte returned to his wife after an absence of several years. Upon his return he discovered the same man who “ruined” (Page 122) his sister impregnated his wife. While I don’t condone violence, I can understand why the narrator resorted to it in this case.

From my reading, it seemed as though Duarte felt some regret over his violent actions throughout the story. At one point he wrote, “A past spent in sin is a heavy burden.” (Page 102) Later he commented that he longed to “put ground between many things.” (Page 150) I didn’t get a sense of that from The Stranger’s protagonist.

With that acknowledgement, the narrator also delivered the following chilling thoughts on conscience.

My conscience did not trouble me. There was no reason why it should. Consciences bite and prick only when an injustice has been committed, such as a drubbing on a child or potting a swallow on a wing. But when hate leads us by the hand, when we are in the throes of an obsession which numbs and overwhelms us, we need never feel the pangs of repentance, and our conscience need neither bite nor prick us. (Page 153)  

I did have an issue with Anthony Kerrigan’s translation, though. I caught a number of clichés in the text. Some of the most egregious included “thorn in my side” (page 37), “turn tail” (page 65) and “if the shoe fits…” (pages 74 – 75). He even wrote three clichés in a row in one paragraph. It read: “Fish get in trouble for opening their mouths, as they say, and whoever talks much errs much, and a shut mouth swallows no flies…” (Page 74) I understand the narrator wasn’t a Nobel Laureate in Literature; but the author was. Cela earned a more dignified translation than this one.

The Family of Pascual Duarte deserves to be more widely read. I’d strongly recommend it to fans of great literature. I encourage others to read it along with Camus’ The Stanger and draw their own conclusions regarding “similarities”. Whether one sympathizes with Duarte or not, I’m sure they’ll admire Cela’s awesome story telling ability.

Book Review: Lust by Elfriede Jelinek

Do not be fooled by the title. Lust is not a summer beach read. In fact, I’m not sure how I would classify it. Some reviewers have called it “pornographic”. I would disagree with that characterization. Typically, pornography excites an individual. It makes him/her want to act on the feelings of lust it arouses. This book made me ashamed of being human. Confused? Please allow me to explain.

The language in this story jolted me. Let me just write I found it unique. Lust certainly wouldn’t end up in a book store’s erotica section. I’ll cite the more memorable descriptions I read. As a life-long male, I’ve heard people use vulgar expressions in reference to women’s breasts. I have to admit the expression “big warm steaming cowpats of breasts” (page 17) was a new one on me. The author described the conclusion of a sexual act as follows: “The Direktor withdraws from the woman, leaving his waste behind.” (Page 19) Possibly the most troubling line in the book: “They say a fire burns within women. But it’s only dying embers.” (Page 67) Not the kinds of expressions one would expect in a novel titled Lust.

The author didn’t limit her criticisms to relationships between the sexes. Lust also served as a vehicle to critique capitalism.

For the Direktor, people count simply because they are people and can be used or else can be made into consumers who use things. (Page 62)

Ms. Jelinek used blatant language in the above passage. Here’s one where she attempted to connect with readers on an emotional level.

The poor go walking along the banks with their children, where chemicals corrode the waters. The main thing is to have a job at all. And to come home from work with a suitable industrial disease. (Page 110)

The quote below combined the two.

What people live on, apart from their hopes, is a mystery to me. They seem to invest everything in cameras and hi-fis. There’s no room in their houses for life anymore. (Page 114)

The author presented her view of men’s treatment of women as something akin to genocide. Capitialism turned all people into objects. Surely, Ms. Jelinek couldn’t utilize Lust as a means to blast anything else? Actually, no. She also took shots at the Catholic Church. Here’s an example.

Now all of us in this Roman Catholic country will go down on our knees for a while so that all can see us washing the blood of innocence off our hands, the blood that God, making a superhuman effort has transformed into himself (no capital H in the original text): man and woman, right that was his work, his doing. In readers’ letters to the paper they are true to the spirit of Christian architecture, forever striving heavenward. There is nothing to be said against the Pope. Who belongs to the Virgin Mary. (Page 106)

Due to passages such as these I totally lost focus on the story. It had something to do with a woman in a dehumanizing relationship with her husband. For succor she began an affair with another man. I thought this a bit odd and out of synch with the book. If relationships between men and women caused nothing but suffering for the latter, why would the protagonist seek another one?

My main criticism dealt with the scope of the book. Ms. Jelinek’s took an egregiously negative tone throughout the work. I didn’t read any redemption or sense of hope in the entire novel. I would suggest that the author determine an “ideal state” for humanity to live. Let her characters strive towards it. Get away from the construct that life is unbearable, but can only get worse. It made for some agonizing reading.

In 2004 Elrfriede Jelinek received the Nobel Prize in Literature for: “her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.” I’ve read other works by the author. Because of that I can understand the Nobel Prize Committee’s citation. Due to the insufferable way the author expressed her views in Lust, I’d have to recommend reading her other material instead.

Theatre Review – The Heiress at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Dysfunction. Resentment. Money. Add an element of vengeance to the mix and we’ve got a story. The Haddonfield Plays and Players production of The Heiress included all these qualities. The cast and crew showed the audience that while money can’t buy happiness, it can sure exacerbate a lot of misery.

Admittedly, my expectations for this performance were rather low. William Wyler adapted this 1947 play from Henry James’ Washington Square. Wordy serves as the best word to describe this author’s work. I figured the play would run into the Christmas season.

My second concern involved the casting. In his novel, James described Catherine Sloper as a “dull-looking glutton”. When I saw Marnie Kanarek in the role I felt conflicted. She’s certainly not a “dull-looking glutton”. I struggled to identify her as Catherine at first. While gazing into her big blue eyes through the first scene, I realized that Directors Ed Doyle and Matthew Weil made the right call casting against type here.

Ms. Kanarek delivered a phenomenal performance as Catherine. Through her twitching and hurried talking she portrayed a reticent, socially awkward young woman. By the end of the play she transformed into an angry, bitter and vindictive woman made old well before her years. I applaud her measured transition during the show.

I’m still struggling to find the right word describing her facial expressions during the final scene. While doing needlepoint, she had this look like she was going to slash and stab the tapestry. As I sat in the front row, the house manager’s pre-performance announcement that “those close to the stage may get closer to the action than they wish” gave me a chill.

I also have to credit Ms. Kanarek for Catherine’s meltdown during the second scene in Act Two. This mental breakdown was one for the ages. Screaming she tore open her suitcase. Flailing her arms she hurled clothes all over the stage. (I didn’t envy Narci Regina, in the role of the maid, the task of cleaning up this mess.) I probably would’ve called 911 had I not been seated so close to the stage. She scared me.

From reading the playbill, singing is Ms. Kanarek’s strength. That surprised me as The Heiress lacked musical numbers. She displayed outstanding acting chops throughout the entire performance. I can’t emphasize that enough to give her the credit she deserves.

Tyler Reed did a great job courting Catherine in his role as Morris Townsend. This character reminded me a bit of Fr. Flynn from John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Reed played a suave, smooth-talker with an answer for everything. Was he really after Catherine’s money? Did he truly love her? Could he be trusted? When Dr. Sloper (played by Michael Hicks) accused him of being “mercenary”, he calmly rebutted. He always did so by telling his accusers exactly what they wanted to hear. What a coincidence. Or wasn’t it?

Reed also performed well in Townsend’s scenes with Aunt Livinia. (Played by Phyllis Pomerantz.) His charming laughter and wit made me think he wanted to win her over. Then again, maybe he did. His behavior certainly encouraged her myriad matchmaking machinations.

Henry James once wrote, “I’ve always been interested in people, but I’ve never liked them.” Dr. Sloper (played by Michael Hicks) embodied this world view. I liked Hick’s interpretation of the character; particularly the way he tilted his head back whenever he sat in his chair. In keeping with the role, he delivered his lines in a staccato, machine gun like barrage. In his talented hands, Dr. Sloper became austere, unemotional and analytical. He freely expressed his resentment towards Catherine. (Her mother died shortly after giving birth to her.) Not the best qualities for someone raising an insecure daughter.

Mr. Hicks displayed another of the doctor’s bad qualities when holding a glass of brandy during every scene. Yes, you read that right. The doctor had a brandy every scene. I guess the standards for physicians in 1850s New York were more lax than the current ones. Did I mention he had a brandy in every scene? I’m surprised Dr. Sloper didn’t contract cirrhosis of the liver during the show.

The thespians conducted themselves very professionally. As we all know, technical glitches happen on occasion. During a crucial discussion between Ms. Kanarek and Mr. Ross the lights flickered for several minutes. These two actors weren’t distracted. They remained focused and got through the scene flawlessly. The blinking diverted my attention a few times. I really applaud their ability in not allowing this snafu to inhibit their performances.

I did have one criticism of the show. All the actors spoke fast. (As I wrote above: I thought Mr. Hicks’ delivery consistent with his character. After all: the faster Dr. Sloper got the words out, the faster he could drink more brandy.) In fact, several performers tripped over their words a few times. I figured they talked this way to reflect the speaking patterns of upper class New Yorkers in 1850. To be fair, I didn’t have any trouble hearing or understanding anything said on stage. In addition, everyone in the cast spoke with perfect diction. At no point in the show did I notice any mispronunciations. That’s a great accomplishment when speaking quickly.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The rich are different than the rest of us.” After watching The Heiress, I sure hope that’s right. While money may not buy happiness, it can get you a few hours of stellar entertainment at Haddonfield Plays and Players. The Heiress runs through May 23rd.

Theatre Review – Bonnie and Clyde: A New Musical at Burlington County Footlighters

While set in the 1930’s, 2009’s Bonnie and Clyde: A New Musical could have depicted modern American society. The violence, anxiety about financial security and a background rife with religious fervor made me feel like I was channel surfing between CNBC and Fox News. The performance of Jillian Starr-Renbjor’s proficiently directed show brought me back to Burlington County Footlighters’ theatre.

The drama centered on the lives of the two eponymous characters. Still, it was like watching the musical equivalent of an American take on Plutarch’s Lives. I enjoyed the dichotomy between the outlaw Clyde Barrow (played by Connor Twigg) and his ‘reformed’ brother Buck (played by Brad Kenney). Rachel Comenzo did a phenomenal job in the role of Bonnie. Her unconditional love and blind devotion to Clyde served as an outstanding contrast to Becky Moseley’s performance as Buck’s wife, Blanche. Ms. Moseley really nailed the role of a conflicted wife. While a devoted Christian often citing religious reasoning, her own commitment to her husband won out. Even without the stellar musical numbers, these conflicts alone would’ve made for a memorable show.

Mr. Twigg delivered an energetic performance as the hooligan. He animated all the character’s complexities with equal dexterity. His depiction of Clyde’s reaction to a brutal prison assault convinced me he actually became unhinged. The role of a suave conniver also entered his repertoire. When Bonnie’s mother (played by Gabrielle Affleck) walked in on the two during a romantic tryst, he calmly went along with Bonnie’s dubious explanations. Mr. Twigg also brought great tenderness into his romantic scenes with Ms. Comenzo. He delivered a ukulele accompanied serenade to her while he sat in a bathtub. I have to admit: I never thought I’d watch a ruthless character do that.

Rachel Comenzo played an exceptional Bonnie. Due to the strength of her performance, it’s difficult to select one ‘best’ scene. With that noted she truly shined in her rendition of the ballad “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad”.  Ms. Comenzo has a very strong voice. She modulated it very well on this moving song. The tune opened with the following lyrics.

Dyin’ ain’t so bad.

Not if you both go together.

Only when one’s left behind does it get sad.

But a short and lovin’ life, that ain’t so bad.

I only hope to God that I go first.

I couldn’t live on memories.

Her vocal inflections and facial expressions made me feel it.

The variety of musical numbers enhanced the show. It featured some well composed ballads. Ms. Moseley delivered a somber rendition of “That’s What You Call a Dream”.  I’m preferential to more soulful material. I really enjoyed “Raise a Little Hell” by Mr. Twigg and “Made in America” by the Preacher (played by Michael Melvin) and the ensemble. The Gospel influence in those tracks gave them a unique sound.

While a great show overall, one of the subplots was too cliché. Prior to meeting Clyde, a police officer named Ted Hinton (played by D. J. Hedgepath) took a romantic interest in Bonnie. The interest recurred several times in the show. This is the stereotypical nice guy falls for girl who loves the bad boy. The play had enough romantic conflict, already. I thought this element of the story totally unnecessary.

Mr. Hedgepath played his role very well through a great range of emotions. In scenes with Ms. Comenzo he softened his voice like a bashful suitor. When serving in the posse to gun down the fugitives, he showed remorse. I enjoyed his dolorous rendition of “You Can Do Better than Him” with Mr. Twigg. An actor that talented deserved a better story line with which to work.

Set Designer Jim Frazier and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick deserve a lot of credit for their work. A lot of scene changes occurred in Bonnie and Clyde. The production even included a car that emerged from the back of the stage several times. The crew executed these intricate shifts flawlessly.

The real life Clyde Barrow and his brother Buck are buried together. While Bonnie wrote poetry, Clyde came up with the epitaph on their headstone. It reads: “Gone but Not Forgotten.” Burlington County Footlighters’ run of Bonnie and Clyde ends this weekend. I can’t think of a more fitting encomium.

Theater Review – Dr. Cook’s Garden at Bridge Players Theater Company

Many think horticultural concepts can’t be combined with those of mass murder. I’ve got news for those people. It’s been done by the Bridge Players Theater Company in Burlington, NJ. In fact, they melded the two extremely well this May in their production of Ira Levin’s disturbing piece Dr. Cook’s Garden.

The play itself premiered in September of 1967. At that time America entered a period of deep introspection. The Civil Rights Movement had begun, people questioned our involvement in Viet Nam, and the ‘Summer of Love’ just occurred. During this era our nation re-examined many concepts that once seemed sacrosanct. In this sense, Dr. Cook’s Garden reflected the questioning nature of the time period.

The Bridge Players Production featured Fran Pederson in the role of Dr. Jim Tennyson. Like many in those days, the draft board summoned him to report for examination. He needed to obtain childhood medical records to excuse him from serving in the military. This led him to visit his home town of Greenfield Center, Vermont. He met with his mentor and local doctor Dr. Leonard Cook, played by Bob Beaucheane, to acquire them.

Citing medical issues from childhood to avoid military service may sound ethically dubious. As the play went on I realized that plot point merely a teaser.  The moral ambiguity kept coming. In the course of the visit Dr. Tennyson spoke with the doctor’s housemaid and his nurse. (Played by Marti Palmieri and Regina Deavitt.) Dr. Tennyson learned that many people he knew before leaving for medical school had died. He became suspicious. Upon speaking with the doctor’s gardener (played by Mike McCollum) and investigating his records, Dr. Tennyson suspected that Dr. Cook may have been killing his patients.  He confronted the man with these allegations.

The real drama then commenced. Pederson delivered accusations with assurance and conviction. Beauchane’s reserved, laconic assertions of innocence had this reviewer convinced he did nothing wrong. At least until he calmly admitted he did.

Then the drama went into overdrive.  Pederson and Beaucheane played off each other exceptionally well. In the course of their argument they debated Dr. Cook’s faith that his “removals” turned Greenfield Center into an ideal community. Dr. Tennyson rebutted that murder couldn’t be justified in the interest of bettering society. The moral arguments kept coming along with an exceptional plot twist. At times I didn’t know if I was watching theater or hearing a disquisition on philosophy. I quickly realized the latter wouldn’t have engrossed me such. Kudos to Pederson and Beaucheane. They presented a scene that could’ve been pedantic and made it engaging.

Beaucheane also served as the lighting director on this project. He used his dual roles to outstanding effect. One scene in Dr. Cook’s examination room really grabbed me. While speaking to someone on the phone he expressed concern that his nemesis had a terminal illness. The dim illumination made Beaucheane appear dark and sinister. Through the performance’s early scenes his warm tone of voice and laid back mannerisms resembled those of a devoted town doctor. Due to lighting and superb acting ability he transformed into the Angel of Death.

I also enjoyed the way the Bridge Players Theater Company established the scene. Before the show and during intermission, they played 1960’s Rock and Roll over the loudspeakers. The peace symbol Mike McCollum wore on his forehead added an authentic reference to the era, as well.

Dr. Cook’s Garden is the greatest masterpiece I’d never heard of. In the playbill Director Alice Weber wrote, “I hope you agree with me that Dr. Cook’s Garden raises some difficult questions, and I hope it makes you think a little bit as you make your way home.” It sure did. The more I contemplate the myriad ethical issues raised in the play I think about it even more. The show runs through May 16th.

Book Review – The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

In The Autumn of the Patriarch, Gabriel Garcia Marquez delivered a gripping narrative on the regime of a Caribbean despot. With creativity, sagacity and erudition he presented a disturbing story about the corrupting influence supreme power brings. At times I felt like I sat in on meetings with this ‘leader’ at his palace. I got so nervous I might displease him, that I debated whether or not to write this review. In the end, the interest of free speech won out.

The author structured the book in a manner reminiscent of Beckett’s Molloy and Simon’s The Flanders Road. Chapters consisted of one long, rambling paragraph. The sentences went on for several lines. The approach worked well in this story. The narrator informed readers early on that the general couldn’t read or write when he came to power. (Page 13) I figured the person relaying the story would have had a similar educational background. (Not many dictators enjoy the company of their intellectual superiors, after all.)

While a bit challenging to adjust to Gabo made the reading lucid. Unlike the other works I mentioned, I didn’t have any trouble following the story.

This ‘leader’ possessed absolute power. At one point he asked an aide for the time. The gentleman replied, “Whatever time you command, General, sir.” (Page 86) As Lord Acton told us, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I must warn readers that The Autumn of the Patriarch depicted a vicious, brutal, sadistic tyrant ‘warts and all.’ And then there were the awful things he did. Sensitive audiences should avoid this one. I really hope that most of these actions were a product of the author’s imagination. It would really trouble me if Gabo based them on real-life events. Here’s why. I’ll cite the most egregious. The Minister of Defense fell out of favor with the leader. Here’s a description of his entrance to a party hosted by the dictator.

The curtains parted and the distinguished Major General Rodrigo de Aguilar entered on a silver tray stretched out full length on a garnish of cauliflower and laurel leaves, steeped with spices, oven brown, embellished with the uniform of five golden almonds for solemn occasions and the limitless loops for valor on the sleeve of his right arm, fourteen pounds of medals on his chest and a sprig of parsley in his mouth, ready to be served at a banquet of comrades by the official carvers to the petrified horror of the guests as without breathing we witness the exquisite ceremony of carving and serving, and when every plate held an equal portion of minister of defense stuffed with pine nuts and aromatic herbs, he gave the order to begin, eat hearty gentlemen. (Page 119)

And I thought Petronius’ Feast of Trimalchio in The Satyricon pushed the limits of garishness.

While the book chronicled a reign of extreme violence and bizarre behavior a few sections struck me as amusing. They reminded me a bit of American politics. At one point the general engaged in a, shall I say, Clintonesque use of asparagus with a young lady. (Page 206) Earlier the dictator declared his age between 107 and 232 years. (Page 82) Government service must facilitate longevity. That’s about as long as some current members of the U. S. Congress have served in the House.   

I hope the dictator in The Autumn of the Patriarch doesn’t take issue with my review. If he sentences me to “one-hundred years of solitude” I’ll smuggle some of Gabo’s work with me. With a lot of time to read great books like this one, it won’t be a punishment.

Restaurant Review – The Pub in Pennsauken, NJ (Redux)

This past weekend my Dad celebrated his 39th birthday. Yes, the man fathered and raised me and yet he’s younger than I am…so he claims. Maybe he’s got some Benjamin Button thing going on. At any rate, he invited me along with a group of friends to celebrate at The Pub in Pennsauken. I’ve had numerous great dining experiences there. How could I possibly resist? Oh, and it was his birthday.

Diners received unlimited access to the salad bar with dinner, in addition to complimentary bread. For those into salad bars: The Pub set the gold standard. In addition to a delicious Caesar Salad, I added some cottage cheese and carrots to my plate. They prepared the later with raisins. I never would’ve thought to combine a fruit and a vegetable in this way. It tasted outstanding. I would’ve returned for more, but we also ordered appetizers.

Since our party consisted of six people, we ordered two of them. We got the French Fried Zucchini and the Fried Fresh Mushrooms. (The both cost $5.50 respectively.) They could’ve served as meals in themselves. I’ve had Fried Mushrooms at various pizza places over the years. I’d rank The Pub’s as the best. The mushrooms tasted unexpectedly fresh. I even ate them without the sauce and found them savory. I give the chef a lot of credit: he made something as bland as mushrooms flavorful. I had seconds on the zucchini. My dining companions raved about their quality, also.

Then our server brought out our dinners. All the food on the table reminded me of the Feast of Trimalchio scene in Fellini’s Satyricon.  Several in my group ordered the Prime Rib. While it came in at a hefty $29.99, both the portion and quality justified the price. When placed on the table it reminded me of the Ol’ 96er in the John Candy/Dan Aykroyd film The Great Outdoors. Unlike Candy’s character, no one finished this hunk of meat. For the record, my dog did finish off the leftovers. She’s a fussy eater, too.

There’s an old saw that whenever you dine at a steakhouse, someone always orders seafood. That person is usually me. So why buck tradition? I ordered the Hot Seafood Platter. The menu described it as, “Golden brown fried gulf shrimp, seafood salad, broiled fish of the day, deviled clam, tender bay scallops and shrimp stuffed with crabmeat.” It also come with a steep price tag at $29.99. Still, the only word that adequately described this meal was awesome.  When looking at the plate I worried that the population of the world’s oceans must have dipped a few per cent since I ordered it. The portions and quality, again, were phenomenal. I thought the seafood salad a nice addition. I’ve never had a seafood combo that included one. I give The Pub kudos for creativity on this one, also.

I’ve often written that I like it when customers can view the kitchen. The Pub took this to another level. They kept the lights low in the dining area. As one would expect, they illuminated the kitchen is more brightly. In spite of the main dining room’s size, one’s eyes became drawn to the kitchen. The management wanted customers to watch their food prepared. I thought that a very nice touch.

The Pub’s website reads, “Everything extravagant except the prices.” While I do find their prices higher than most, the quality and the portions justify them. Thanks to the quantities even my dog got to share in the quality fare: and she’s a tougher critic than I am. After my latest experience at The Pub, I can’t wait until my Dad’s 40th birthday party.

Restaurant Review – Firebirds Wood Fired Grill in Moorestown, NJ

I thought very hard about how to spend my birthday this past April 19th. After much contemplation I decided to commemorate it the same way I pass most evenings these days. I opted for dinner at a fine dining establishment. Afterwards, I’d conclude my evening by blogging about how the restaurant failed to meet my expectations. (Before anyone asks: the answer is no. John Belushi did not pattern his ‘party animal’ character in the movie Animal House after me. I understand that is a common misconception.) On this occasion I learned the meaning of irony. I was disappointed by not being disappointed.

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill delivered an outstanding dining experience. The place made a great first impression. The ambiance impressed me. They arranged the glasses in the racks behind the bar by color. The bartender placed the reds together, the blues in the same spot, then the golden ones, and so on. While I’m color blind, I still enjoyed the visual effect.

The hostess seated my party between the bar and the kitchen. Talk about the perfect location! I always applaud a restaurant that allows patrons a clear view into the kitchen. A recent issue of Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs focused on global food security. It’s a clear indication the staff earned the management’s confidence to let the public watch them prepare meals. That’s a good thing.

My dining companions and I commenced our dining experience with an appetizer. We ordered the Lobster Spinach Queso. The menu described it as, “lobster, baby spinach, tomatoes, pepper jack cheese, tortilla chips. For $12.25 all three of the people in my party ate good portions of it. We all found the dip and the chips savory. The latter came in three varieties: a red one, a black one and a traditional style. There are only so many ways to flavor tortilla chips, but I did detect subtle differences in the variety.

Then came the main course. As this evening marked my reaching the quarter century mark (again), I thought about my mortality. What better time to leave my comfort zone and try something I’d never had before? While not exactly on my ‘bucket list’ I opted for the Braised Tenderloin Pasta. The menu described it as, “cavatappi, fresh spinach, red peppers, and sic green chile cheese sauce.” The menu also included a “limited availability” disclaimer next to the name. On the evening I dined at Firebirds, they had it.

I’m not a big meat eater, but I really liked this dish. The combination of the steak and the pasta created a very distinct taste. I’ve never feasted on anything like it before. While pricey at $17.95, I received a great portion. I even took some home with me. I can’t remember dining out and not finishing a meal in recent months. I give Firebirds a lot of credit: they give customers their money’s worth.

On this dining excursion I did something else I don’t usually do. I ordered desert. As I’m health conscious–not because I’m getting old, mind you—I settled on the Flourless Chocolate Cake. I’ve had flourless pastries before and liked them. This cake was no exception. It didn’t taste as sweet as traditional fare, but it suits my tastes. I thought it a bit pricey at $7.75, but since it was my birthday, they gave it to me for free. I liked the personal customer service touch.  I’ll have to find out when my next birthday is so I can get more free stuff.

I didn’t like the lack of complimentary bread with dinner. I’ve noticed this at other places I’ve dined recently, also. I understand that to conserve water, servers only provide it upon request. Is there some kind of wheat crisis I’m unaware of? It seems odd to me that suddenly few places give customers bread with dinner.

I’d also point out to readers that Firebirds meals are rather pricey. I’d recommend reviewing the menu on-line prior to dining there. As I wrote above, I felt the quality and the portions I received justified the cost. In the interest of full disclosure I should point out that my Dad and stepmom treated me for my birthday. If I had paid out of my own pocket, I’m sure my comments would be the same. I did want to let readers know, though.

My dining experience at Firebirds made for the best 25th birthday I’ve had in years. I enjoyed their delicious offerings. I’ve attended some infamous dinner outings over the last several months. I’m very thankful to Firebird’s Wood Fired Grill for providing an excellent one on my birthday. That wish I made when I blew out the candle last year finally came true.