STILL SINGLE – reviewing a reading

It’s no secret that I generally prefer seeing new-works-in-development to seeing finished theatrical productions, so my opinions should always be taken with a pinch of salt. But — I saw a beautifully executed reading of a new work today.

STILL SINGLE (Karen Bishko, Nat Bennett, and Suzanne Heathcote) is a special piece of work (if not perfectly named). It’s the story of Leah, a 36-year-old divorce attorney who is perfectly satisfied with her life – until she realizes it’s a mess. She is, of course, still single, and can’t figure out why her romantic liaisons go so terribly awry — until she begins to look critically at “the one that got away”. Leah’s best friend (Jessica) and singing coach (Gabriel) are working through some similar issues of their own, and while all three interact with a host of uniquely realistic supporting characters, they each learn to face their own issues and grow by supporting one another.

Script-wise, this is a fascinating, round story for three people. It’s richer, more nuanced, and more deeply contextualized than most book musicals – the writers demand the audience’s attention and insists we engage with what’s happening on stage (or be hopelessly lost). It’s the most vulnerable script I’ve seen, perhaps ever, and I yearned for each character to find his or her way to happiness almost from each moment of introduction. I hovered on the cliff’s edge of tears for recognized pain for more than half of the first act and a good chunk of the second.

That said, it’s a work in progress and that shows. In particular, the script is fat in a few places, while the transitions into and out of the scenes involving Jessica’s infertility are too thin to deliver the story in a satisfying way. Predictably, there are moments where the action drags.

The score is pop music, sometimes leaning toward rock, at others distilling to a light folk sound, and occasionally opening up to the rawness of a soul lyric. The first two songs are a little underwhelming, but the third — written and sung by lawyer-Leah — and those that follow deliver — albeit without the romantic musical theater sound and reprises that allow for an audience to walk out humming. Because they’re so thoughtfully woven into the story, I imagine that the right band (rather than merely a piano and a six-string) would provide a fabulous show.

If a show is a garment, this one needs some alterations, and some of the visible stitching needs to be properly masked. But this is a project to watch, and support, and wait for.

(And if you’re in midtown right now, head to the Roy Arias Studios (300 W 43rd Street) and snag a ticket for the 7pm reading.)

Getting Dressed, Part 1

I am an insecure dresser. This isn’t a new thing; my adolescent memories about clothes involve my mother trying very hard to get me to choose something to wear other than jeans, a white top, and a plaid flannel shirt (it was the 90s, after all) or an electric blue linen blazer — while I tried very hard not to panic about picking a single pair of earrings.

Not much has changed in 20 years. Now I have a wardrobe of beautiful, classic staples, but I have more anxiety about figuring out how to wear individual pieces together than I have for all other aspects of my life combined. Add to that the post-major-life-change-dissatisfaction-with-my-appearance, and I’m at the point where peering into my closet to get dressed every morning feels overwhelming. Special events are torture.

Enter my friend Cynthia, an adorably well-put-together former colleague, and her confessions of being so not cool enough to dress herself — and the concept of outsourcing clothes shopping.

I had never heard of such a thing — outside of the seemingly luxury services for celebrities (for whom appearance is the difference between getting a job and not). I certainly never assumed it might be something for a middle class working woman with more interests and goals than time.

But there are a plethora of services available! So far I’ve signed up for Stitch Fix, Wantable, Shoe Dazzle, Keaton Row, and Shop It To Me — and convinced a friend to try Bombfell (the guy’s equivalent of Stitch Fix). I’m trying to keep an open-mind, but am already completely excited and relieved. Every time I think about getting dressed now, my anxiety is soothed with a calm little mantra: “It’s okay, Lissa. You have people to help. Closet therapists!”

So for the benefit of my friends, many of whom seem interested in this concept of outsourcing, a review of my first service experience.

Stitch Fix
Stitch Fix is a “surprise me” service for on-trend garments and accessories. You provide some information via a lengthy web form (personal info, measurements, style preferences, what you’re seeking), and one of their stylists selects five pieces for you — which are sent with little cards showing two ways of styling the item. Fixes can be scheduled individually or on a monthly subscription basis. Each “fix” costs $20 — a non-refundable fee that is applied to any purchases that you make from your fix. When the items arrive, you have three days to decide what you’re keeping and what you’re sending back; a postage paid envelope is included for any returns, and you just tuck the clothes inside and drop it at a USPS pick-up point. You only pay for what you keep.

My first box arrived a week ago, and based on the experience at the time, I would definitely order another one. Stitch Fix advises recipients to open the box, look at and feel the garments, and try them on no matter what the first impression is. Good advice, and an excuse to play dress up!

First on was the Loveappella Baltimore Chevron Striped Knit Shirt — a short sleeved, soft, blousey top with gathered cap sleeves and a straight hem. I love the rhythm of a chevron pattern, and these colors are right in my wheelhouse — pink and gray in hues ranging from petal and dove through burgundy and charcoal.

Loveappella Chevron Shirt

Styling Guide for the Loveappella top, from Stitch Fix

I wanted to love this top, but alas, it didn’t fit my shape well. The sleeves were too high under the arm so the gathered seam was uncomfortable. The straight fit didn’t offer any waist shaping, and the slight stretch of the fabric distorted the pattern across my bust. Into the return envelope it went.

With the blouse, I had slipped on the Katherine Barclay Julien Zipper Detail Ponte Skirt — a to-the-knee black pencil skirt with a wide cross-grain waistband and a chunky silver-tone zipper in place of a walking vent.

Katherine Barclay Zipper Skirt

Styling Guide for the Katherine Barclay skirt, from Stitch Fix

I flat-out hated the skirt, but laughed and laughed over how strange it looked on me. I have a very exaggerated hour glass figure, so most skirts and trousers require tailoring to fit perfectly. But why anyone would create a pencil skirt with literally no hip-to-waist ratio is beyond me — I had seven inches of extra fabric sticking straight up around my midriff, rather than lying flat as a waistband should. And the zipper was so heavy that it pulled the drape all out of alignment, creating a weird bunching at the side seams. I unzipped the vent to see what it would look like, and the texture of the zipper was scratchy against my leg — it would certainly shred a pair of nylons or tights if I were to sit down while wearing it. It, too, went into the return bag.

Next, I pulled on my favorite jeans for comfort while testing out the remaining tops. The Mystree Malvern Embroidered Loose Peplum Knit Shirt was first — a white, long-sleeved slubby cotton shirt with a drapey sort of peplum at the bottom and a bodice inlay of embroidery.

Mystree  Peplum Blouse

Styling Guide for the Mystree blouse, from Stitch Fix

This would be a beautiful top for a woman with a very slim and straight figure, but it looked baggy and unkempt on me. The fabric was very soft and comfortable against the skin, so I kept looking for ways to salvage the poor fit; I considered keeping it as a maternity top in case I do decide to have children soon, but that seemed both foolish and fate-tempting. Into the return envelope it also went.

It seems like I should have lost hope now, right? 3/5 of the way through this box of splendid clothes, and I’ve found nothing but duds — what a bummer! But I actually didn’t mind a bit. I’ve spent afternoons trying on dozens of garments only to walk out of department stores empty handed — the price of being tall and oddly proportioned. Testing out clothes without any pressure to like or keep them was incredibly freeing, and I was having fun being silly. The joy factor ratcheted way up with piece number four, though –

The Splendid Calimesa Printed Crew Neck Tank. This is a color-blocked top with a small, classic pattern in scarlet, cream, and navy that gives way to a solid navy triangular neckline. The light, cotton-rayon blend made me doubt the piece, but then I put it on — and the cut is worth a fortune.

Splendid Calimesa Top

Styling Guide for the Splendid top, from Stitch Fix

The navy fabric fits across the very top of the bust to the crew neckline, over the shoulders, and down to the top of the shoulder blades. It clings for a beautiful fit, while the patterned portion has a slightly looser swing. The arms are cut so that there is no gaping at the underarm and no peek-a-boo bra straps — the death knell for a potential work top. Result: a shirt that is perfectly modest for the office, but with drape that moves a second before I move and continues for a second after I stop, giving a sense of weightlessness. I love the colors and pattern, but never would have thought to pick it up for myself in a shop. Total win.

Side note: I’ve worn this top twice already, once with jeans and a jacket and once with long gray trousers and a navy polka-dot cardigan (look at me mixing patterns!) — and have received a half-dozen compliments on it. I’m completely charmed.

Once I actually took the Splendid tank off, it was time to try on the pièce de résistance: 41Hawthorn’s Rocco 3/4 Sleeve Faux Wrap Dress.

41Hawthorn Faux Wrap Dress

Styling Guide for the 41Hawthorn dress, from Stitch Fix

I love this dress. It fit me almost perfectly. The fabric clung and swung in all the right ways, the skirt fluttered along the faux wrap edge, and the self-fabric sash could be tied into a bow with a bit of sassy ennui.

Problem: it’s quite a bit shorter than knee length. I’m not a prude about showing skin, but I’m six feet tall with a short torso and ridiculously long legs; a skirt that shows my knees and four inches of thigh makes me look like a person with the poor judgement to try to make a school girl uniform look sexy. That’s never an acceptable look, and certainly not a good idea for a grown up who wants to be taken seriously. So, back it went.

Verdict: Stitch Fix is incredibly fun. The clothes were not quite what I would have chosen for myself, which was the point — they pushed me to try new things. I recommend them to anyone looking for a kickstart toward something new.

While I had originally scheduled a second fix for myself, I’ve since canceled it — not because I dislike the service, but because I’ve been really wowed by others I’ve tried. Keaton Row did such an exceptional job finding clothes that work with my height and proportions — so much so that I hopefully won’t need any more new clothes for awhile. I’ll report back on how well the next round of orders work!


And then, with a crash, work and home lives collide.

Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life

On Monday, the New York Times published a phenomenally detailed, five-chapter article titled Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life — an intimate portrait of one homeless child and, by extension, her family. At the start of this story, Dasani is an 11-year-old living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, full of promise. At its end, she is nearly 13.

This little girl and her family were my neighbors in Brooklyn. I recognize her mother, Chanel, from the photographs — I used to pass her by on my way home through the north end of Fort Greene park. The children would be playing on the exercise equipment (the same bars that Dasani used for pull-ups) and I would dart around the socializing adults and parked umbrella strollers on my way to that “other New York” the writer speaks of, farther “east along Myrtle… [to] the shaded, graceful abode of Fort Greene’s brownstones”.

To Have and Have Not.

The portrait of Dasani, while beautifully rendered, is not gentle. It reveals a little girl of uncommon strength and intelligence, with forebearance and determination and gumption that have been painfully earned. A child who effectively shoulders burdens more responsibly than many of the adults in her life, doing the best she can with what she knows and sees and longs for. At 12, she is a parent-figure to 7 siblings. She takes refuge in her school. She seizes opportunity with both hands, but has so many other sets of hands ready to pry her grip open.

I ache to know what will become of this child, and of her siblings. And of “the vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York”. So many of them are not “uncommon” — bright, spunky, loving dreamers, currently destined to a seemingly-endless multi-generational cycle of poverty. When violence or neglect or drugs or alcohol or sexual assault or the endless crush of hopelessness have taken their toll — what then?

“What then” is that we’ll lose some of those children to early death, to promise snuffed out by life without a refuge of “home”. We’ll see some in foster care, hungry for scraps of love and care. Some few will beat the odds. And we’ll see some at Covenant House, those who hit the bottom with nowhere else to turn, who are yet brave enough to trust in strangers.

But without real, systematic, policy-based change and a wide social structure that capitalizes on the compassion of every person to put wholesome food into hungry bellies and provide safe spaces for the most basic needs of life — a clean washroom and a warm bed — while pouring light into shadows and helping starved souls find a reason to hope, there will be nothing more. We will continue to throw away living people, children and toddlers and babies who, if allowed to be their best selves, could offer so much to us all.

That’s Entertaining

I love to entertain, but I’m not much of a “party” person. I prefer modest gatherings of people who meet Anne Elliot’s definition of good company — “clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation,” and are generally of a disposition to have themselves a good time.

I knew this, of course, when I decided to host my first Christmas party in a decade this past weekend, and was most pleased to develop a guest list of good friends who all had a few things in common: a love of making music, a personal investment in social justice issues, laid-back attitudes to housekeeping and personal comfort (which meant that they wouldn’t take much affront at the size of my living room), and a delight in good food.

The former meant that there was a great deal of conversation (particularly about labor, education, homelessness, housing, and religion), some fine singing (with accompaniment by the piano and the ukulele), and a generally cozy atmosphere, while the latter meant that I could indulge in some interesting new recipes. Apart from a few of my personal stand-bys, almost every dish I served was sourced from Food 52 – a new-to-me cooking community website that claims to be “helping people become better, smarter, happier cooks.” Yes, please!

The menu, for those curious about such things:

  • Hot mulled cider
  • Cranberry Apple Sparkling Punch (I used Forelle pears in place of apples for the ice floes)
  • Gingered Lime Punch (I replaced all of the lemon with lime, and made this non-alcoholic by subbing extra dry gingerale for the vodka. I used double the amount of fresh ginger for the syrup and didn’t strain the solids from the pitcher, which gave this a kick and kept it from being too sweet.)
  • Alton Brown’s hummus topped with toasted pine nuts and preserved lemon, served with fried pita
  • Assorted antipasti (my houseguests arranged the Peppadew peppers stuffed with whipped ricotta and honey, but everything else came straight from the olive bar at Whole Foods)
  • Vegetarian Lentil Chili (made with red lentils instead of brown)
  • Butternut Squash and Black Bean Chili (doubled the beef, substituted green chilis and ancho powder for the adobo)
  • A variety of breads for dipping, including a fragrant herb bread made by one guest, a sweet cranberry nut bread made by another, and custard-stuffed cornbread from Marion Cunningham’s LOST RECIPES
  • Rum Apple Cake (made with Brandy instead of Rum, thanks to my not knowing the difference, and with flour instead of almonds as we ran out of time for grinding)
  • Plates of sliced fresh fruit and simple cookies

Everything seemed to go over quite well with the guests, though I wish I’d remembered to refill the pitcher of Gingered Lime Punch half-way through the night. There wasn’t much leftover food — the vegetarian chili went home with vegetarian guests, those with the longest drives took the leftover fruit bread as their travel breakfast — but what there was has been put to good use: the remnants of cider and punch were reduced to syrup for pancakes, the sliced fruit and ricotta+honey sauce were perfect breakfast toppings for Irish oatmeal, and the cornbread became a decadent base for Monte Cristo sandwiches when served alongside warm soup. I’m going to poach the champagne-soaked pears and serve them over gelato on Thursday when my parents come to visit — provided they’re still firm enough to hold up. (If not, I’ll try my hand at a purée of sorts.)

If the success of a party can be measured by laughter and empty dishes, this one was tremendously so — even with all of the bittersweet musical theater songs sung on request!