By Carol Rocamora . . . 

On Valentine’s Day, what could be timelier than a love letter to New York City? Specifically, the West Village, and a small quiet street where a tiny neighborhood restaurant, now fighting for its life, is clinging to the past.

It’s tough, though, because as one character explains: “The problem with a city based on newness is that there’s no place for nostalgia.”

Cornelia Street, the endearing new musical (book by Simon Stephens, music and lyrics by Mark Eitzel) now playing at the Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2, brings to mind other plays set in restaurants—August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, or Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (although there’s not much dining going on in Harry Hope’s bar, that’s for certain). The restaurant-setting trope is an ideal gathering place for colorful characters and their “pipe dreams,” as O’Neill put it,  of either preserving the past or escaping it.

Mary Beth Peil and Norbert Leo Butz

The motley assortment of souls who work in, and frequent, Marty’s Restaurant on Cornelia Street is the play’s greatest asset—and a showcase for some lovely performances by a fine group of actors under Neil Pepe’s skillful direction. Leading them is Jacob, the chef who’s been there for twenty-eight years and is leading the battle to save the life of the restaurant, home to a dwindling number of loyal locals. As played by the charismatic Norbert Leo Butz, Jacob is an idealist—a self-taught chef who scours the city for the best ingredients, fawns over his restaurant’s few regulars with exotic new dishes, and clings to the desperate hope that Marty, the practical, hard-nosed owner (Kevyn Morrow) will somehow find an investor to save the place. Jacob has had quite a storied life. He’s a single dad who is raising a rebellious teenage daughter named Patti in rooms above the restaurant. Played by a luminous Lena Pepe, Patti is failing her high school courses, while challenging her father’s unrealistic dreams. 

Jacob and his loyal bartender Philip (the feisty Esteban Andres Cruz) manage the restaurant with loving care, catering to the regulars—including the timid John (Ben Rosenfeld) and the flamboyant Sarah (Mary Beth Peil), who evokes the image of Blanche DuBois from Streetcar Named Desire. There’s also the shifty William (a scary George Abud), whom Jacob tolerates (after all, the restaurant has been averaging single-digit reservation numbers per night). 

George Abud with Lena Pepe and Esteban Andres Cruz

The arrival of a striking new face—Misty, the daughter of Jacob’s former wife—is the catalyst for new alliances within the restaurant “family.” As played by a magnetic Gizel Jiménez, she’s a troubled soul in transition, determined to put her drug and alcohol addictions behind her. The empathetic Jacob offers her a temporary home at the restaurant and she plunges into work as a waitress, offering some fine solos from Mark Eitzel’s hard-driving score. 

How the desperate Jacob faces financial crisis (his and the restaurant’s) is what drives the plot of Cornelia Street forward. Jacob makes a rash move that puts himself and his daughter in great danger, as they await the meeting between Marty and a potential investor (a smooth Jordan Lage, representing the new New York order). 

Kevyn Morrow and Norbert Leo Butz

Does the restaurant get saved? That’s yours to discover. Suffice it to say that Simon Stephen’s book brings out the best in (almost all of) the characters—namely, compassion, loyalty and, above all, love. Scott Pask’s charming, cozy, set makes you want to frequent Marty’s yourself, and the artful arrangement of Simone Allen’s talented six-member musical ensemble (including a harp and tuba!) around the set’s periphery make it all the more inviting. (The colorful choreography is by Hope Boykin.)

Atlantic Stage 2 provides the ideal intimate space for this nostalgic story of a past Village we all love and long for. Meanwhile, there’s a special treat in watching the lovely Lena Pepe make her radiant New York debut under her father’s fine direction, in the theater founded by her parents Neil Pepe and Mary McCann. It reminds us that the New York theater is indeed a family affair and makes the final song “If you have love, you own the world,” all the more poignant and meaningful. 

Cornelia Street. Through March 5 at Atlantic Theater Company’s Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th St, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). 

Photos: Ahron R. Foster

[Cover Photo: Norbert Leo Butz with (l-r) Kevyn Morrow, Ben Rosenfield, Mary Beth Peil, Lena Pepe, Esteban Andres Cruz and George Abud]