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'An Inspector Calls' at the Shakespeare Theatre

November 28, 2018


(Photo by: Mark Douet)

J.B. Priestley’s classic thriller An Inspector Calls deserves all the accolades it has earned over the years. The Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) is hosting this first stop on a national tour of the National Theater of Britain’s Landmark production of the play. All the featured actors in this production including Liam Brennan as Inspector Goole, Jeff Harmer as Mr. Birling, Christine Kavanagh as Mrs. Birling, Lianne Harvey as their daughter Sheila, Hamish Riddle as their son Eric, Andrew Macklin as Gerald Croft Sheila’s fiancé, and Diana Payne-Myers as Edna their servant, are making their STC debuts. They are all superb with special kudos to Christine Kavanagh whose Mrs. Birling’s every utterance makes us totally aware of her privilege and Liam Brennan’s Inspector Goole makes us believe there are still decent people in the world.  After the warm welcome they all received from the audience on opening night at the Sidney Harman Hall it can only be hoped they will make their way back to DC again in other productions. 

(Photo by: Mark Douet)


The play is directed by the brilliant Stephen Daldry. He has directed An Inspector Calls before as well as so many other hit shows. Many might remember him for his direction of Billy Elliot on Broadway in 2009 which earned ten Tony awards. 


The incredible scenic design is by the amazing Ian Mcneil and wows from the moment the curtain rises with the help of three youngsters who represent all of us who are not of the privileged class. They like us will watch a privileged family try to justify their privilege. When the curtain rises you see a mansion toward the back of the stage with a dinner going on inside where there is laughing and drinking. We find out they are celebrating Sheila and Gerald’s engagement. Outside the house it is raining (yes literally raining) with the mansion surrounded by clouds and mist. I heard more than a few oohs and ahhs from the audience. Macneil is also responsible for the great costumes.  

(Photo by: Mark Douet)

An Inspector Calls is set simultaneously in 1912, post-war society and modern day at the home of the Birlings, a well-heeled British family. The story really begins following the celebration dinner for the engaged couple when the evening’s fun is brought to an end by the arrival of a man who announces himself as Inspector Goole. He is investigating the suicide of a young girl and appears to have information on how each member of the Birling family and Gerald were involved with her and contributed to her despair. 


This play focuses on the privileged elite who appear to have no conscience somehow finding themselves blameless even after all their entanglements with the young girl are brought out. The Inspector represents a social conscience and makes us believe if we don’t strive for a more just society we will continue to all lose. The play gets you thinking about how society has changed very little over the years. From Marie Antoinette who reportedly said about the poor and starving “let them eat cake’ to Melania Trump wearing a jacket with the slogan “I really don’t care, do you?” when she visited survivors of a disaster. Or Donald Trump sitting in the glitter of Mar A Lago for Thanksgiving while ordering the tear gassing of innocent women and children on the Mexican border. 

An Inspector Calls will be at Sidney Harman Hall until December 23th.  You shouldn’t miss it. 

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Federico Ristorante Italiano by Freddie

October 22, 2018

Crystal City has a great new restaurant, Federico Ristorante Italiano and it’s open for lunch and dinner. It will get me, a died-in-the-wool DC’er, to cross what I often refer to as the Potomac Ocean to enjoy a great meal. 

For some of us it is the wonderful and upgraded reinvention of an old friend. In October of 1978 on my first weekend in DC a date took me to Café Italia on 23rd street in Crystal City. It became one of my favorite places to eat and its Maitre’ D at the time, Freddie Lutz, became a lifelong friend. 

Freddie Lutz (Photo by: Peter Rosenstein) Freddie Lutz

For 40 years, it’s been great to watch Freddie as he successfully navigated the world of food and beverage now fulfilling his lifelong dream as owner of what was once Café Italia now named Federico Ristorante Italiano by Freddie. 

Freddie began his restaurant career at the bottom as a dishwasher at the East Side Diner in Providence, Rhode Island while attending the Rhode Island School of Design. After returning to Virginia and his childhood home, where he still lives today, he worked at Portofino restaurant. When the owners opened Café Italia across the street he went to work there. For 25 years, except for a couple of years when he worked at Ponte Vecchio owned by Lucy DeCarlo, he was at the Café. He once called Ponte Vecchio a “fancy shmancy downtown DC restaurant”. He always said he enjoyed the more homey and comfortable style of the Café. Over the years  Freddie has met a lot of ‘fancy shmancy’ people including; Tipper and Al Gore, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and Jim and Sarah Brady to name just a few; and many of them enjoyed the good home cooking and neighborhood ambiance at Café Italia. 

Freddie stepped out on his own in 2001 and opened Freddie’s Beach Bar just up the street from the Café. It was an immediate success and has been going strong ever since. It is a gay bar and restaurant and for many years was a ‘safe place’ for members of the military stationed at the Pentagon during the era of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. He has awards and mementoes from those days on the walls of the bar officially thanking him for being a welcoming place where people could be themselves. Freddie is ‘out and proud’ and an incredible host. He knows how to get people to enjoy themselves. He and his partner of twenty years, Johnny Cervantes, love making people happy and of Johnny Freddie says, “He is the love of my life”.

When Freddie found out Café Italia was going to close he took the opportunity to actually make the dream of owning it a reality. He joined with two partners; Adolfo Urrutia (who began as a busboy at Café Italia and has since helped open four restaurants) and his brother Bertillio Urrutia who is now back in the kitchen he once worked in as Executive chef at Federico Ristorante Italiano. Joining him in the kitchen are Rene Perez and Luis Coranado and together they have over 50 years of experience at the restaurant. 

Weeks ago I had the pleasure of being invited to a tasting of the new menu and have since been back for dinner more than once. Federico Ristorante Italiano is now on my list of favorite restaurants. 

Federico Ristorante Italiano (Photo by: Peter Rosenstein) Federico Ristorante Italiano

Some of the menu items come directly from the old Café Italia menu. ‘Chicken Breast A La Lutz’ (yes the owners knew how popular Freddie was and named a dish for him) is one. It is a chicken breast stuffed with spinach, ham, cheese and garlic; baked in a sherry wine and cream sauce and served with mushrooms and pasta. There is a wonderful Veal Piccata sautéed in butter and lemon juice; and a tasty Cannelloni, pasta crepes filled with meat and covered in tomato sauce. An exciting new dish is Ravioli Al Carciofo, artichoke and goat cheese ravioli, roasted cherry tomatoes, shallots and basil olive oil with lemon zest. Every dish received high ratings from the tasters and they have continued to get raves from diners since the restaurant opened. There is a wide choice of appetizers and entrees including salads, seafood, veal and chicken dishes. The Pizza and Calzones are wonderful. Entree prices are mostly in the $13 to $18 range with none higher than $23. All entrées are served with a big house salad and tasty bread, garlic bread if you like. There is a full bar and a good selection of red and white house wines at very reasonable prices. 

The official grand opening held on September 30th saw a line all the way up 23rd street. Literally hundreds of people excited about this reopening of an old friend. I recommend you put Federico Ristorante Italiano on your list of restaurants to try for the first time, or if you loved Café Italia like I did head back to an old friend. I anticipate you will find yourself going back often and telling friends about it. 


For a reservation and the full menu click Federico Ristorante Italiano. 


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'The Comedy of Errors:' A Brilliant Night in the Theatre

October 2, 2018

One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays The Comedy of Errors is the story of two sets of twins, each with the same name—what could go wrong? Apparently everything that can. When you go to see this play you must leave your logic behind and enjoy an evening of music, farce and folly. Servants misplace their masters and wives overlook their husbands. Chaos reigns. What makes it so great is the joyousness of the entire cast and their brilliant acting. 

The plot is simple. The mother and father of these two sets of twins are shipwrecked when the twins are children. They end up separated not knowing if each other survive. The twins become separated with one of each twin set being together. Their father only knows one of the pairs has survived and goes on a lifelong search for the other two, thinking his wife is dead. As the play begins we see they all end up in Ephesus, Greece and it takes the full one hundred minutes and a barrel of laughs for them to all find each other.  We are living in difficult times and Alan Paul who directs so brilliantly, manages to get in a couple of references to today including ‘a wall’ but this play is a welcome respite from the reality we face. Paul uses the wonders of the setting in Greece and Greek culture to the fullest in this play from cries of ‘opa’ to the dancing.

Matt Zambrano and Tom Story (Photo by: Shakespeare Theatre Company) Matt Zambrano and Tom Story

Those of you who are aficionados of the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) will recognize many in the cast. Paul has said this show is a tribute to Michael Kahn, finishing his final season as Artistic Director, and many of the actors Michael brought to DC audiences over the years are in it. They include among others Nancy Robinette (Emilia the Abbess of Ephesus), Tom Story (Angelo a goldsmith), Ted Van Griethuysen (Egeon Merchant of Syracuse), and Sarah Marshall (Dr. Pinch). Each one a standout on their own and better than ever. But it is Tom Story who from the moment he leads the cast in their entrance who plays his role to the hilt and shines in this production. He is funny, real and brilliant. He somehow manages to stop just short of going overboard as he minces his way through the play interacting with each character. 

Alan Paul who has won numerous awards for his directing will certainly get another for this show. His creativeness shines through in every scene played without intermission. He uses every opportunity to give his actors the time to make a hand-motion, a slapstick moment, an eye roll, and a pratfall to grab a laugh and reel the audience into the farce with them. 

Now on opening night there was an unscheduled half hour intermission when a woman in the audience needed medical attention. The theater staff handled the emergency quickly and efficiently. Michael Kahn took to the stage to inform the audience she was on her way to the hospital and that it appeared she would be ok. He then asked the audience to give the cast a few minutes to transport us back into the play. To their credit and total professionalism, the cast took only a quick moment to draw the audience right back with them; laughing and clapping at their performances. 

The show opened with Eleasha Gamble (the Courtesan), sharing her beautiful voice in song, and the cast led by Tom Story (Angelo the goldsmith) making their entrance together. And so began the farce as we watched how they all managed to miss running into each other for ninety of the 100 minutes of the play. Much of the credit for their ability to do this is the incredible set, placed on a turntable to move each scene along, and designed by the very talented James Noone.  

Since Paul is known for his musicals there should be no surprise the musical numbers including ‘put a smile on your face’ and the brilliant tap dancing routine choreographed by Karma Camp and performed by Matt Bauman, John Cardenas and Justin Nelson bring down the house. 

The two sets of twins are played by Gregory Wooddell (Antipholus of Syracuse), and Christian Conn (Antipholus of Ephesus); and their servants Carson Elrod (Dromio of Syracuse) and Carter Gill (Dromio of Ephesus). Each brings a strength, distinctiveness, creativity and comic presence to their role and make you want to see much more of them. 

The beautiful Veanne Cox (Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus) is wonderful and plays her role to perfection confusing her husband with his twin and then sleeping with the wrong one. Her physical acting is great to see. Folami Williams plays her sister to perfection. J. Bernard Calloway (the Duke) and Matt Zambrano (Tailor) both very talented add to the fun of the evening.  

Each member of the team is crucial to bringing out the full wonder of this production. Gabriel Berry (Costume Designer) has created exquisite designs; Mary Ellen Stebbins (lighting designer) and Christopher Baine (sound design) each add a new dimension to the production. Michael Dansicker (Composer and Lyricist) manages to turn this farce of a play into a wonderful musical. He and Paul have worked magic together and are complemented by Victor Simonson (music director). 

The Comedy of Errors will be at the Lansburgh Theatre through October 28th. 

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