Classic met contemporary on Thursday night at the Russ & Daughters Cafe on the Lower East Side. Well-dressed guests chomped on bite-sized knishes with spicy mustard and delicate slices of pickled herring on toasts. Egg creams were guzzled alongside gin and dill cocktails served in coupes.
And of course, the cafe itself, which only opened this year, is an updated version of the original Jewish appetizing store of the same name, complete with table service, alcoholic libations and caviar.
In the middle of this glamour, actors gathered to do a reading of the podcast “King of the Egg Cream,” which fuses old-fashioned radio storytelling with today’s audio technology. The story is very loosely based on the true story of the Egg Cream racket in 1920’s New York City.
“‘King of the Egg Cream’ is a New York gem; it’s like ‘Serial’ but with Jews, guns and chocolate syrup,” said Alana Newhouse, Editor-in-Chief of Tablet Magazine, which released “King of the Egg Cream.”
The series came to life because of Justin Bartha (“The Hangover”), who both stars in and directs the 10-episode series that is out now. Other stars include Ellen Barkin, Ari Graynor, Lewis Black, Richard Kind and Alex Karpovsky, who took part in the reading Thursday night.
“It’s a Jewish story and the characters to me were very rich and textured and outlandish, in the way that you can kind of imagine from a lot of historical Jewish characters. Thats what drew me in,” said Karpovsky in an interview by the bathrooms, which are infamous for having deli-ticket number lined walls.
He said he enjoyed doing the series because as an actor, having only your voice to rely on was an exciting challenge.
“In film and TV, there’s a lot of information that’s conveyed between the words, in gestures, facial expressions, body language and so on,” he said. “Here you’re just focusing on vocal intonations and inflections to express everything. That and silences. It’s a much more narrow range but it’s such a charged set of particular weapons that you have and that to me is pretty neat and exciting.”
The hip factor that’s currently associated with Jewish cuisine humors Karpovsky, who is originally from Boston.
“It’s a little silly to me, to be honest with you,” he said. “There’s always a desire by hip people to make something that’s deemed uncool the next thing. There was a moment I guess when this thing was so forgotten and neglected that it felt like a discovery even though we’ve been eating it for 5000 years.”
And yet, he admitted to having never had an egg cream.
“I’m going to have my first one tonight…They told me I could have it with gin or vodka,” he said, adding that he’d probably have a vanilla egg cream with vodka, to stick to his Russian Jewish roots.
A spiked egg cream? That sounds like the perfect meeting of 1920 and 2014.
“King of the Egg Cream” is available on iTunes.