Like any sensible, self-respecting Californian, I decided to cautiously usher in year 2000 from the sober vantage point of my backyard bomb shelter.
Nah, actually I was in Times Square.
Well, not right in the middle of it, but I saw the crowds and the ball and then I ducked into a party to Jack and Coke my way straight through to the first brunch of the new millennium.
See, that's the way they do it back east.
While I was in town, of course, I decided to test out how my Man Who Came to Dinner wings would fly on distant shores. That is: scrounge up a free meal in one of the Big Apple's finer restaurants. My host would be Mark McKinney, one-fifth of the famed Canadian comedy troupe the Kids in the Hall and three-season veteran of Saturday Night Live. So a few nights before the big night I jumped on the subway and headed uptown to the Manhattan Theater Club, where Mark was starring in an off-Broadway production of David Lindsay-Abaire's new play, Fuddy Meers.
The play is a wild farce about a young woman caught in a struggle between her pre- and post-amnesia husbands. There were lots of laughs and some very good acting. Mark, however, clearly stole the show as Millet, the docile, schizophrenic escaped con with a department store security tag stuck to his suit and an evil, alter-ego sock puppet continually cursing from his left hand.
The popular production closed temporarily after New Year's, allowing Mark to join his Kids in the Hall team for a national, two-month reunion tour (coming this Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 15 and 16, to the Warfield), after which he'll return to Fuddy Meers as it transfers to a larger theater downtown.
Mark met me down the block at Estiatorio Milos on West 55th Street. As New York's top-rated Greek restaurant, Milos doesn't look quite as upscale on the inside as its prices would suggest. It's a cavernous space with high, unfinished ceilings, dangling lights, and silky fabrics draped down giant cement beams. If anything, the place makes you feel more like you're sitting outdoors in a Grecian courtyard than in the lobby of a New York skyscraper. Which is good.
Late on a Tuesday evening the restaurant was only about one-third full. We were led up a few stairs to a table in the back by the mock fish market and produce stands. "Would you like to start with bottled water?" asked our waitress. "We have Pelligrino or nonsparkling."
"That and a martini," decided Mark. "Ketel One, up, with a twist."
"I'll have a Jack and Coke," I added, setting the stage for things to come.
Milos' menu reads like a marine biology text. If it swims, they'll cook it. "Do you think deep-fried anchovies would be any good?" asked Mark.
"Yes," I said, hoping that wasn't an entree. "I think they'd be like Funions, but fishier."
As our drinks arrived I raised my glass and thanked Mark for joining me. "It's the nicest way to do an interview," he slurred, pulling a confused drunken character out of his repertoire. "And then ... no the other thing is ... where's that guy at the bar ... he was funny ... now that's funny."
Meanwhile, missing the humor, our waitress stood by ready to take our orders. "I'm just going to order a bunch of appetizers," decided Mark, upon which our waitress informed us that there was no soft-shell crab or anchovies, eliminating two of our lead choices.
Instead Mark went for the roasted peppers, the crab cake, and an assortment of Greek spreads. I added scallops, shrimp, and a green salad to the list, and we agreed to just share it all.
Since he's the only Kid in the Hall to have taken up residence in New York (the others have settled in L.A. or back in Canada), I asked Mark whether live theater was the direction he wanted to move in. "Well, so far it's just been fun," he explained. "But I started in improvisational theater, in Toronto. It was very pure and, at the time that I was there, completely happening. And very open and fun. It was the only place, as neurotic as I was, where I could have just walked in and just gone up on stage. It was remarkable. It made me unself-conscious -- enough. And then Kids in the Hall happened. And that was another thing where it was just all about the work. There was no money involved at all in the early days."
From there Mark and fellow Kid Bruce McCulloch were hired as writers by Saturday Night Live, which eventually made Mark a full cast member. "You can wait around your whole life for a really good part in a film," continued Mark, "that they'll just give to some TV guy, because he's got a higher TVQ or something. But in theater, if you really work at it, you'll be able to play ... Iago. You know what I mean? In a reasonably big house, with a reasonably savvy audience watching. Theater just offers so many more different kinds of roles."
As we talked, various plates of Greek delicacies filled the table in front of us. The grilled peppers were particularly delicious, as were the fist-sized shrimp and the crab cakes.
"The other thing about doing theater," Mark added, "is even if it doesn't pay fantastically well, I still get to get out and spend most of the day with my kid. And I'm writing. And then I get on the bus, at 6:30, and drive down to the theater. In New York, you know? Off-Broadway. And put on a show. It's pretty amazing.
"So where does the reunion tour fit in?" I asked.
"Basically it's a way for us to hang out and blue sky about any other projects we might like to do together. Like maybe a concert film, or a special, or even a play."
"Well," I said, "I think any project that comes out of it would be great."
"Really?" asked Mark, tilting his head. "It could be an evil project."
"We could blow up the Golden Gate Bridge."
The wonderful foods disappeared almost as quickly as they arrived, and much as I wanted to we refrained from the traditional smashing of the plates against the industrial architecture. Instead Mark perused the dessert menu, suggesting that we top off our meal with a bit of Metaxa brandy or a grappa.
I deferred, never having tried either.
"You've never had grappa?" exclaimed Mark, "It tastes like gasoline, for the first ... oh, you gotta have grappa, then."
Getting our waitress' attention didn't prove quite so simple, though. Mark and I chatted for 10 or more minutes, but she was nowhere in sight. At one point a busboy stopped by and gave us a funny look. "We just wanted to order some dessert from our waitress," said Mark tentatively, "but I guess she's busy with other customers?"
"Yes," he smiled without understanding.
"Tell her we said hi," I said, as he walked away.
A short while later the owner strolled by. "How we doing?" he asked.
"Good," Mark replied, still glancing around for the waitress.
"She's taking a shit," I suggested to Mark.
"Right over the kettle," he replied. "It's tomorrow's lu ..."
"How are you?" I interrupted as the waitress appeared over Mark's shoulder.
"Hi, yes," said Mark, "I'd like to try the baklava, and the fig plate with yogurt. And we'll have two Nonino Grappa di Digorzo. And then you'll be on your merry way, sir," he added to me.
"Yes, well, I'm on vacation," I replied. "Sort of."
I asked him whether he ultimately hoped to be known as a stage actor or a film actor or a comedian.
"I don't really spend a lot of time pondering my legacy," he said. "I do know that I want to be interested in my work when I'm 65. But I also realize that's kind of your own responsibility, to keep yourself engaged and not burn out. But God knows that could all change still. I mean I was way more into my kid for a year and a half than I was into my work.
"I think I've gotten to a very satisfactory level of notoriety, so far. It's enough to sort of get me in the door, but I still have to earn the job. So when I get it, I know it's mine. Like they wouldn't have given me this part just because I did Kids in the Hall or Saturday Night Live. First of all, on Kids in the Hall I played so many different characters that most people aren't even sure which characters I did. People don't know that I was the Chicken Lady, or the Head Crusher (Mark holds up two fingers to his eye: "I'm crushing your head, I'm crushing your head'). So I think if people read the program they know it's me, but otherwise it's not like watching, say, Gilligan get up there and try to play Hamlet."
Just then our desserts and grappas made their way to the stage. The baklava was good, but the fig in yogurt was out of this world. I don't know why, but it was.
"Is there any trick to drinking this?" I asked Mark, picking up the small clear glass of grappa.
"No, but take a sip first."
So I did.
"Just remember," he added, "coffee, beer, wine, scotch, they all started like this."
"No, it's not that bad," I considered. "It's like drinking rubbing alcohol. But good rubbing alcohol." Then, invoking my best imitation of his drunken slur, I added, "It reminds me ... of the time ... I had to siphon gasoline ... from my father's car."
With that the Kid in the Hall raised his grappa glass to mine and offered a very friendly, "Yamous."
And a happy New Year to you.
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