Review: Send West Village Café Musical ‘Cornelia Street’ Back to the Kitchen

A talented cast is trapped by cringe material in this show about quirky urbanites trying to survive in New York City, with songs from Mark Eitzel of American Music Club and a book by British playwright Simon Stephens.

Norbert Leo Butz as Jacob (center) with (l-r) Kevyn Morrow (Marty), Ben Rosenfield (John), Mary Beth Peil (Sarah), Lena Pepe (Patti), Esteban Andres Cruz (Philip) and George Abud (William) in ‘Cornelia Street’ at Atlantic Stage 2. Ahron R. Foster

Cornelia Street | 2hrs 20mins. One intermission. | Atlantic Stage 2 | 330 West 16th Street | 212-460-5475

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British playwright Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) knows two things about New Yorkers: They talk a great deal of their balls being abused, and they frequently assert their New Yorkiness. The line, “Hey, we’re New Yorkers, we bust our friggin’ balls,” technically isn’t spoken in the dreadful new musical Cornelia Street, but it might as well be. Stephens’s ersatz Gothamites bemoan testicles busted, kicked, or squeezed in a vise. Then, to console themselves, they name-check their geographic location. The last line of the final song goes, “Love is a magic you must believe / like a fool in love with New York City.” Which is cute, if you can withstand the two hours and twenty minutes of aimless tedium that precedes it.

The songs that offer brief respite from Stephens’s tin-eared book are by composer-lyricist Mark Eitzel, who apparently doesn’t care how musical numbers are supposed to operate: furthering plot, deepening character, isolating an emotion. Instead, he cranks out a dozen or so moody, rueful ballads with tissue-thin relevance to the scenes that lead into them. Cornelia Street might as well be a play in which a radio spits out a tune every five minutes and everyone sings along.

Both solo and as frontman for the beloved indie-rock band American Music Club, Eitzel has released 17 albums. He can recycle the score for #18; it may be perfectly listenable out of context. To be honest, the guy didn’t have a very inspiring plot or characters to begin with. Cornelia Street is basically a workplace dramedy driven by a handful of quirky urbanites struggling to survive and find joy in the gentrified, corporatized, dream-crushing bitch-goddess that is—all together now—New York City. 

Jacob Towney (Norbert Leo Butz) is the scrappy, battered chef of Marty’s Café in the West Village, located on the title street (handsomely rendered by designer Scott Pask). Owned and managed by Marty (Kevyn Morrow), the cozy restaurant-bar has a history stretching back decades, but not much of a future. Real-estate giants are poised to devour the high-value property; in defiance, Jacob wants to turn the money-losing eatery into a fancier foodie joint. If only he can get funding from former drinking buddy Daniel McCourt (Jordan Lage), who has given up partying and is now a wealthy investor. Jacob and Marty often quarrel over pricey items Jacob demands for the kitchen: chorizo from Spain, gourmet ham from Balducci’s. 

Constellated around this business drama is a handful of colorful types: the sassy gay waiter/actor (Esteban Andres Cruz), an older ex-singer and ex-lover of Jacob’s (Mary Beth Peil), a nerdy Google programmer (Ben Rosenfeld) and a sleazy taxi driver and drug dealer (George Abud). Two young women drive the meandering story. One is the 15-year-old Patti (Lena Pepe), for whom single-dad Jacob does everything so she can have a better life. The other is Misty (Gizel Jiménez), Jacob’s stepdaughter from a previous marriage to a doomed alcoholic. Misty shows up at the café to bitterly condemn Jacob for abandoning her mother. (She says she walked all the way from Grand Central, but it’s more likely the penniless girl took the bus to Port Authority.)

It’s almost okay that Eitzel’s lyrics are dopey or loaded with false rhymes; they’re only pop songs. But the book writing is often clunky in a way that suggests Stephens hastily toggling between a Word doc and Google searches. Misty bitterly tells the gang at the café that her mother died: “Three weeks ago. Emergency One. Kingston, New York.” Is Misty on the spectrum? Could no one at the Atlantic translate that into American? “Three weeks ago in a shitty little hospital up in Kingston.” There. Invoice in the mail. 

Gizel Jiménez as Misty in ‘Cornelia Street’ at Atlantic Stage 2. Ahron R. Foster

I’ve rarely seen so talented a cast trapped in such cringe material, directed with zero musical panache by Atlantic head Neil Pepe. Two victims—I mean actors—stand out: one a legend, the other an ingénue. Butz is a Broadway veteran with two Tony awards on his shelf (for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me if You Can). He is several dozen miles above this kind of shoddy stuff. Always funny and authentic, an ordinary dude with extraordinary pipes and raffish charm, Butz makes virtuosity look easy. Students of musical theater: attend to see how talent can shine in adversity. Then there’s a newcomer, at least to me: Jiménez, who has a striking goth-princess look (penetrating dark eyes, black pageboy cut) and a smoky jazz soprano to die for. She gives each song a darkly polished gleam; may she soon star in a better vehicle.

Cornelia Street (which forgets that it’s a story about fathers and daughters) is the sort of sappy fable the charitable describe as a love letter to New York but feels as depressing as a breakup text. Even more frustrating, there are plenty of local writers who would avoid the cultural glitches and clichés Stephens blunders through. We can shoot a Chinese spy balloon over the Atlantic but can’t stop Brits from stealing gigs at the Atlantic.   

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Review: Send West Village Café Musical ‘Cornelia Street’ Back to the Kitchen