4:20 PM CDT, October 5, 2012
NEW YORK — Wandering through the darkened auditorium of Broadway's Cort Theatre here on a recent Saturday morning felt a lot like a tour of Chicago's off-Loop theater.
Michael Shannon, the former denizen of the Chicago fringe turned TV and movie star, was rehearsing, alongside his real-life partner, Kate Arrington, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble member. Dexter Bullard, known for his work with such small Chicago companies as A Red Orchid Theatre and Evanston's Next Theatre, was directing Craig Wright's "Grace," which was previously produced at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie; his wife, Tif Bullard, was designing the costumes. Yet more interestingly, the woman signing the checks was Debbie Bisno, long associated with the now-defunct Chicago theater known as Roadworks Productions and now a Broadway producer in her own right.
Just down the street, the Booth Theatre was being readied for the transfer of the Steppenwolf's Chicago production of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" even as that high-profile Broadway show was actually rehearsing in Chicago. And in the midst of all this midtown October action this past week came the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its maestro, Riccardo Muti, bringing with them to Carnegie Hall the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Chicago Children's Choir and attracting great critical praise, and a note or two of raw Gotham envy.
The symphony crew just missed the chance to eat the food of Chicago's most famous chef, Grant Achatz, in grand residence for five nights at New York's Eleven Madison Park, even as Daniel Humm, the chef and owner of that storied restaurant, was preparing for a similar stint in Chicago, an exchange agreement named "21st Century Limited" train in honor of the old "20th Century Limited" train, once the most glamorous way to get from one city to the other.
It's hardly news, of course, for Chicago culture to be exported in New York. At one point in 2009, it dawned on me that there were two Broadway shows opening within a few days of, and right across the street from, each other — "Superior Donuts" and "A Steady Rain" — that actually were mostly set on the same couple of blocks in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, not that anyone outside Chicago actually cared. And if there's one thing as constant in Chicago history as Chicago cultural institutions and ambitious artists trying their luck in the Big Apple, it's someone like me writing an admiring Sunday column like this about that very phenomenon — most such columns have typically ended by saying that Chicago need no longer frame itself in terms of New York, even while doing precisely that.
Chicago has been framing its aspirations and insecurities around New York for as long as its cultural life has existed. As far back as 1853, an unnamed Tribune critic was noting, with pride, that one of the city's new arts buildings was quite the equal of anything in New York. It is a civic obsession that, understandably, infuriates some independent-minded Chicagoans.
Still, it remains important for Chicago to link itself with New York, the nation's most important media and cultural marketplace, for all kinds of competitive economic reasons. And the little October invasion under way is noteworthy for its breadth and the way it plays to Chicago's cultural strengths: theater, classical music and, perhaps most striking of all, cutting-edge food.
Aside from the pair of Broadway shows, the prestigious Carnegie Hall outing and a "sister chef" arrangement with a media profile that every extant sister city agreement can only envy, there are also smaller Chicago-to-New York transfers this fall, including a Lincoln Center studio production of novelist Ayad Akhtar's play "Disgraced" (first seen at the American Theater Company in Chicago); a move to the Soho Playhouse for "5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche," first produced in Chicago by the New Colony; and a visit to New York for "A Twist of Water," a play actually about Chicago that was first produced on Chicago's North Side by the Route 66 Theatre Company.
As a journalist from Toronto recently noted, there is a lot of competition for the silver medal when it comes to culture in North America, and this medal race has important implications when it comes to attracting business and tourists, especially of the international variety. Toronto, which is very focused on its cultural assets and recently announced a megaproject by celebrity architect Frank Gehry, makes that second-city play. So does San Francisco. So does Washington, D.C., which has invested more heavily in cultural buildings than Chicago and has the Kennedy Center, which is very adept at leveraging its placement in the nation's capital as a cultural brand all its own.
The Achatz-Humm deal (Humm cooks here beginning Wednesday) is interesting in that it represents a new way to leverage a chef's celebrity. It's not unusual, of course, for a successful chef to open a restaurant in another city, often moving from Chicago to New York, or, as in the recent case of the cutting-edge City Winery, the New York music venue and eatery, which just opened in the West Loop, in the other direction. But Achatz and Humm are operating much more like Steppenwolf in that they have left their actual buildings at home and gone on tour themselves, which is a much more fluid and theatrical dynamic, although you would expect no less from Achatz, surely America's most theatrically innovative chef and a crucial civic asset.
What this does for the city's tourism boosters, hoteliers, economic development mavens, convention sellers and the like is help forge a kind of Coke-Pepsi duopoly in the prospect's mind. It might look like Coke spends money to compete with Pepsi, but it's actually more important to both companies that a third company cannot enter the upper reaches of the market. In terms of money and jobs, that's one advantage for Chicago of what is going on with Chicago and New York this month. And in the New York cultural mind? Well, at least some eyes are being diverted from London.
A special evening
Join the Tribune's Chris Jones for a special evening in conversation with actor and author Harvey Fierstein. He'll discuss his work and his support for gay civil rights Oct. 16 at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. $20 at tribnation.com/events.