‘Cornelia Street’ tries to save a special piece of New York City
The Daily Beast
February 14, 2023
An old-school Greenwich Village café is in danger in “Cornelia Street,” but this new musical seems unsure where to channel its focus and energy.
Scott Pask’s set is the prettiest of the New York theater year so far: in the basement space that is Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2, the audience is facing the warmly imagined confines of Marty’s Café, the Greenwich Village setting for Cornelia Street (through March 5), with its simple bar, little wooden tables, and handsome, suspended lights. This space is a threatened one because of the combined forces of gentrification, rising rents, and the all-too-familiar premium on New York real estate, but Pask has made it inviting and established-feeling—a joint where everyone knows your name.
The musical contains not just general echoes in the crises facing businesses in the present-day city, but in the very specific closure, on Jan. 1 2019, of the famed Cornelia Street Café after 41 years of much-storied life.
In the Tony-winning Simon Stephens’ musical—with music and lyrics by Mark Eitzel—present-day financial and emotional perils are held precariously at bay by the bar’s chef, Jacob (Norbert Leo Butz), who not only presides over Marty’s, but also lives out back with daughter Patti (Lena Pepe). Its waiter is the quietly charming Philip (an excellent Esteban Andrew Cruz), and the regulars include Dawson’s Creek’s Grams, Mary Beth Peil, as retired opera singer Sarah (all scarves and wry wisdom), John, a cute and quiet computer scientist (Ben Rosenfield), and William (George Abud), a taxi driver with a penchant for vintage Levi Strauss shirts, drug-dealing and generally menacing behavior.
Kevyn Morrow gives a warm strength to the eponymous Marty, who owns the restaurant, and can’t afford to any more—especially as Jacob keeps spending their profits on fancy foodstuffs in an effort to attract high-spending customers. Jordan Lage is the extremely muscled investor Daniel McCourt, in whose hands the fate of Marty’s lies. Gizel Jiménez plays Misty, a mysterious figure with links to Jacob’s past.
Director Neil Pepe (Tony-nominated for American Buffalo) keeps Cornelia Street’s storylines on such a low simmer the show begins to feel too directionless in its storylines and somewhat stereotypical characters. Aimless conversation and song stall the plot. However, two songs stand out: Patti’s “You Do Nothing” is a headbanger that blasts out of nowhere to express her dissatisfaction with her ineffectual dad, while “Dancing”—springing forth from Sarah’s memories of Studio 54—is an all-too-familiar nostalgic totem given fresh life by the cast letting loose to the best of Hope Boykin’s choreography. “Dance like your soul was looted” is one of its excellent lines.
The orchestra is set up on either side of the stage, and sounds too loud, rough and intrusive, underlining the musical’s set of jagged music and narrative edges. Is Cornelia Street aiming to be an indictment of the awful financial forces of the city that mean places like Marty’s are unfairly imperiled, endangering the threads of community and companionship that customers like Sarah treasure so much? Is it a family drama, with a soapy complications? Why does the villain seem like a figure of fun, rather than a serious threat?
Cornelia Street resists sentimentality—rightly, a New York audience is living its central money-oriented drama every day—but it kind of loves sentimentality too. The cast does it all it can to navigate its strange mix, and ably play the most charming elements of the show—Jacob and Patti’s father-daughter relationship, and the nervous, unstated romance of John and Misty.
By the end you do want Marty’s, its denizens, and what Marty’s stands for, to survive. But Cornelia Street’s patchwork of songs and plot and character is a discordant puzzle, as is its own ambivalence about what it ultimately wants to show—a tribute to a much-loved, crazy-making city and human survival within it against the odds, or a depressingly real picture of modern-day New York. But maybe this ambivalence is the most resonant thing about the show; many New Yorkers live in the same gap between the city’s romance and reality.