Monthly Archives: August 2012

Review: The Last Smoker in America

* published on Aug 2, 2012 in THE EDGE

“The Last Smoker In America” is lighting up the stage at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs. The plot pits beleaguered Phyllis, a working wife and mom, against an increasingly rigid society full of anti-smoking, Big Brother robots. Phyllis is an endangered species, aka the last smoker in the very regulated society known as America.

Jake Boyd as Jimmy, John Bolton as Ernie and Farah Alvin as Pam in the Off-Broadway musical "The Last Smoker in America"

Jake Boyd as Jimmy, John Bolton as Ernie and Farah Alvin as Pam in the Off-Broadway musical “The Last Smoker in America”  (Source:Joan Marcus)
Natalie Venetia Belcon originated the part of Phyllis, and wrings every ounce of humor and silly from the role, utilizing her glorious voice and great comic instincts. Phyllis is married to Ernie, a fading, wanna-be rock star played with guts and glory and occasional hapless humility by John Bolton (no, not the former Bush appointed Ambassador to the UN with the bad mustache).

Phyllis and Ernie live in suburbia somewhere; you know this because there is a big kitchen, and a back yard. The set, by Charlie Corcoran, is wonderful as it allows the four characters to emerge dancing with great moves from choreographer AC Ciulla, and to use kitchen appliances as mythical or dream characters through out the musical.

Joining the wife and her rocker husband is a teenage son who is laced with prescription drugs, which we can only guess are for extreme ADHD as he is wonderfully off the wall. Relative newcomer Jake Boyd plays Jimmy, and this Boyd can sing, dance and act. He does a show-stopper called “Gangster,” where he raps about wanting to be black and a star. His pants hang so low they must be wired on — and this is only one great costume among many myriad, stunning outfits by Michael McDonald, (no, not the blue-eyed singer).

Add to the mix a Jesus-loving, black lady neighbor, Pam, who is a Janus-faced goddess whose personality and voice morph from simpering sweet to a deep Mephistophelian profoundo. As Pam, Farah Alvin rivets you when she is on stage. Her talent is epic whether she is playing the neighbor or inhabiting a dream sequences as an Irish dancer, or as part of the Osmond family. As I mentioned, those appliances open and fantasy characters emerge, belting out musical numbers, each crazier and raunchier than the next.

The music is by Peter Melnick and although you don’t go home, (in my case, by bike), humming or singing the tunes loudly, it is still interesting music and it gives the wildly talented cast a chance to strut their stuff. The book and lyrics are witty, dirty and politically to the left, and penned by Bill Russell, (no, not the former Celtics NBA star), the guy who wrote the lyrics for the Tony nominated “Sideshow.”

I like swearing and off-center humor, but I could see that some folks were squirming in their seat during the song called, “I Wanna Call You…” Ernie blasts this tune when wife Phyllis returns a year after abandoning her home after learning her husband and two-faced Pam are having an affair. (She also was being hunted for being a smoker, and I think Pam turned her in).

Ernie belts out that he wants to call his wife the C word but instead he will settle for a rafter of other intense insults ranging from dick weed, to asshole, to bitch. That chorus, “I Wanna call You…” is chanted over and over as Ernie rails at his wife. Pam finally intervenes, reminding him that River Dancing is the best medicine for anger management. This necessitates the Irish jig number, where Pam bursts from the kitchen stove in full Kelly green spangles and tap shoes.

If all of this sounds exhausting, it is really good fun and runs a very well air-conditioned 90 minutes. There were great peals of laughter from the majority in the audience. The pacing of the play is great, all due to the direction by Andy Sandberg. I thought it was Andy Samberg from “Saturday Night Live,” but this young Yalie director seems to have a real feel for comic pacing.

This is a summer puff piece, a place to hang up the worries of the election, global warming and your dwindling income and just laugh at how silly we are as humans, with our addictions and desires and attempts to control ourselves and others.


“The Last Smoker in America” enjoys an extended run at the Westside Theatre/ Upstairs, 407 West 43 Street. For info or tickets, call 212-315-2244 or visit

Bike Fund: How one NYC cyclist pays savings forward

*published in Velojoy

When I started riding my three-speed bike after graduation from college in 1972, I never thought to bank the money I saved. Instead, I began buying fresh flowers with what I intuited was the extra cash I pocketed because I biked everywhere.

40 years later (gulp), I am still on my bike, albeit not the exact same one. Cycling is one of the great loves of my life, and I often reflect on the gifts it has given me. On my bike I feel powerful, safe, silly and thrifty. What an extraordinary combination!

I suppose the abundance I receive from biking around the city I adore has prodded me to consider what I can do to give back. Think about it: Even if a bike is stolen and you amortize the cost of a new one (you know, split the cost up into cab rides or subway fares until you pay it off), you are back to saving money in a couple of weeks.

‘Off-Shoot of Informal Economy’

So after the flip of the New Year on the Epiphany, I decided to begin distributing the “wealth” I create by riding my bicycle. I can’t share the energy, the giggles, the low blood pressure, but I can share the money I save. So I started The Bike Fund.

It is not a formal charity; rather the Bike Fund is what my sociologist daughter calls “an offshoot of the ever-growing informal economy.”

Every day I am prepared to share whatever I saved by biking. For example, one day last winter I had an appointment at a hospital; from where I live, it would have been two trips by subway, and in fact it became a five-hour ordeal, so I might have taken a cab home. So tally up at least five bucks for The Bike Fund. Then later I went to a cocktail party further downtown and then across town to a show. Let’s call it another 5 bucks.

Now I have 10 dollars in The Bike Fund. So when I rode down Second Avenue toward home below Canal Street, and spied a young woman with her sweet dog sitting on cardboard with a sign that read, “Please help us,” I wheeled around and gave her five dollars. A passerby chided me, “How do you know she is not scamming you?”

“Well,” I said, “even if she were to live on the Upper East Side, this is a damn hard job, sitting on the ground in the bitter cold, and I want to help.”  He clucked at me and stormed off. I mounted my bike and continued home.

Rolling Under My Own Power

Another night after a show at the New Museum, the crowd spilled onto Bowery smoking and parsing the performance art we had just watched. I heard one man accosting the group: “Hey, anyone have 25 cents?  I am a quarter short of a million.”

Oh I loved that. “Come here, I want to tip you over the top of your goal and put you on the road to the next million.” I gave the man two bucks.

One day, after a pottery class,  I emerged onto the street feeling like a well-dirtied kid in a great mood. It was cold, but I was hot from the kiln and hadn’t even bundled up yet, and there in the bus enclosure was a man with all his belongings tied into a few large plastic bags. “Hey will you help me? I am Irish, Jewish and Black, a mixture that needs a lot of help.”

“Like my family!” I said, and gave him the five bucks I would have paid for subways. I headed home, rolling under my own power.

Grateful to Have Fallen in Love with Biking

A few days later, I rode to Park Avenue and 69th Street for a meeting; it was a long, cold ride from downtown in bright winter sunshine. It would have been expensive if I had taken a cab even one-way, but I biked both ways. On the way back home there was a person outside the Marble Collegiate Church who from afar resembled a mountain of clothes. I stopped my bike and popped it up the curb. It was a man engrossed in counting change. He held a cardboard sign that read “HELP ME.” When I approached he said, “Good afternoon Miss, how can I help you?”

“Well, I thought I’d give you this.” And I handed him a five-dollar bill.

“Thanks, and have a good day.” It was one of the most polite interactions I’ve had in New York City in ages.

I know my Bike Fund makes no real dent in the fraught world situation. However, it allows me to help in a tiny way and always shakes me and reminds me how lucky my life is. I am grateful to have fallen in love with my bike so that I can share some of its benefits with others.