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Theatrical devices: Way to the mind goes off-Broadway and through the stomach

Friday, October 17, 2003


NEW YORK -- Good evening, Madame and Monsieur. For our appetizer tonight, we have dumplings. Then we're offering a thin-crust pizza or hand-rolled knishes, and an entree of roasted Moroccan spiced lamb with couscous, curried corn and cumin-scented carrots. And for dessert, we recommend the home-baked peanut butter cookies.

Sounds like a great dinner, right? Actually, this menu comes straight from your theater program, right down to lamb's marinade of lemon, cinnamon, black pepper and coriander. Dinner and theater is a New York ritual (and dinner-theater is a staple in the hinterlands) but food is suddenly in the spotlight, a central character in a smorgasbord of new shows: "Omnium Gatherum," "The Cook," "Recent Tragic Events," "The Last Supper," "Cookin,'" "Dinner With Demons" and "Momma's Knishes." (And the audience participation classic, "Tony'n' Tina's Wedding," has returned.)

This recipe for the off-Broadway stage is no coincidence, but a reflection of our increased awareness about what we eat in the Food Network era: Several playwrights, including "Omnium" co-author Theresa Rebeck, "Momma's Knishes'" David Wise and "The Cook's" Eduardo Machado, are among those tuning in to shows like "Iron Chef," and our cultural conversation is now sprinkled with references to "foodies" and "celebrity chefs," obesity in a "fast food nation," and organic versus genetically modified food.

"People are more aware that food is not just food -- it has meaning, whether it's moral meaning or metaphorical meaning on different levels for different people," says Ed Schmidt, whose one-man show, "The Last Supper," riffs on food, storytelling and faith and culminates in a meal for the audience. People also seem to be returning to the idea of a meal as a communal gathering, perhaps in response to America's fast-paced, high-tech lifestyle, he adds.

Rebeck, whose play features an obscenely elaborate five-course meal, which includes that Moroccan lamb, says this fancy for food is especially prevalent in New York. Dining at trendy restaurants has become a social event, replacing other activities -- like attending the theater.

"Some people even search for meaning to life in food and restaurants that they're not finding elsewhere," she says. Plays that dig into real food provide emotional "validation" for audiences. (Unfortunately, Rebeck adds, people still complain that theater is too expensive, even though they're quick to drop $200 for dinner.)

The aftereffect of 9/11 and the influence of reality TV also feed a desire for immediacy and a disdain for affect and artiness. "You have to reach across the spotlights to make a connection with the audience," says Craig Wright, whose "Recent Tragic Events" featured a blind date gone bad and characters wolfing down pizza with sausage and green peppers. (The play closed last week.) "Genuine eating brings a theatrical event into the moment. You might pretend to be the character but you can't pretend to eat."

Because food is so central in our lives it serves playwrights well. "Food says much about society and who people are and what they are going through," says Michael John Garces, director of "The Cook," which traces a Cuban woman's life through the food she makes. "It makes a lot of sense to see lives reflected through food on stage."

It is no coincidence that "Recent Tragic Events" and "Omnium Gatherum" deal with 9/11 and involve eating, says Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, who co-wrote the latter. "In troubled and challenging times we seek comfort in food," she says, adding that she was struck by how people tried connecting to and comforting the firemen by bringing them food.

Food is the common ingredient in all these shows, but its role varies greatly. In "Cookin'," a family-oriented show from Korea at the New Victory Theater through Sunday, it's a secondary prop for knife-wielding percussionists ostensibly preparing a wedding banquet. (The Korean title "Nanta" -- "strike recklessly"-- is more accurate.) The results of the "Dumpling Challenge" get tossed in the garbage, as do the vegetables the "chefs" chop while keeping rhythm. (In Korea, farmers take the scraps for livestock, which is tricky to organize in Times Square.)

By contrast, food writer Jonathan Reynolds is singularly focused in the forthcoming "Dinner With Demons," preparing a complex meal onstage while dishing out food-related anecdotes. The show begins performances Nov. 30 at Second Stage.

"The Last Supper" and "Momma's Knishes" both explore our relationships with food. "For me as an artist, the metaphor is of feeding the audience, providing nourishment," says Schmidt. While doing all the cooking is -- like the solo act of writing -- quite lonely and laborious, serving food to others "seems like a really powerful gesture."

(Warning: Plot secret ahead.)

Schmidt even "disrupts" his play by falsely claiming he has forgotten to take dinner out of the freezer; during a hastily convened intermission, he offers to order pizza. Some audience members -- anticipating a gourmet repast with communal passing and sharing -- are aghast.

"I've had people walk out and one woman had to be restrained," Schmidt says. (When he briefly changed the offer to Thai take-out, there were fewer histrionics.)

Schmidt added more food-related scenes to his script "to draw deeper connections between the play, the Last Supper at the center of the story, and the dinner." He asks audience members why they're vegetarians or vegans and weaves in tales about his mother's cooking and about his botching peanut butter cookies as an 8-year-old -- cookies he later serves as dessert ... after a delectable lamb stew.

In "Momma's Knishes," David Wise comes to someone's home and has the hosts and their guests do the cooking. (Wise performs mostly in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey but will move to the New York metropolitan area next spring; reservations are made by clicking to or calling (215) 546-1852.)

"I'm interested in theater in unconventional spaces and in involving everyone in the experience," Wise says. "Food is such a powerful tool in bringing people back -- this captures the feeling of being in your mother's kitchen when you're a kid."

Wise plays his great-grandmother -- "her knishes were legendary in my family" -- in Brooklyn in 1938; the host plays her teenage daughter and the guests are the daughter's friends, learning to make those knishes while Momma muses about the life of a housewife, the Depression and her Jewish relatives in Poland.

"The differences between men and women, watching how everyone approaches food and who is afraid to get their hands dirty" fascinates Wise, who says audiences fret about "Momma's" approval and how their knishes will taste. (Knishes are "pretty forgiving," he says, but admits he is now sick of them.)

One emotional high point comes when Momma asks what food everyone associates with his or her mother -- it brings all the guests, no matter their background, together. "The specifics are different but the response is not. In fact, the more specific you get to a particular culture the more universal the emotion seems to be."

"Omnium Gatherum's" extravaganza is a far cry from the knish's humble basics and in this play food can also be divisive as the guests argue about vegans and meat-eaters. Of course, they also argue about Palestine versus Israel, the spirituality of food and the 9/11 attacks.

Such charged concepts first inspired a talk-show-gone-haywire, but the playwrights switch to a dinner party to allow more natural conversational shifts. The sumptuous feast -- prepared by a different New York chef each month -- also provides fodder on the lifestyle of the privileged. Gersten-Vassilaros is impressed by the achievements of elite restaurants but disdains our "myopic" and "coddled" culture and our lack of appreciation for our utter abundance.

"Food in this play is a metaphor for the haves and have-nots," she says. (Notably, the play's two heartiest eaters are the two least affluent characters.) American theatergoers eat so well that the meal -- which includes candy-cane beet tartare and tri-star strawberry mille-feuilles -- had to be way over the top to get people's attention.

The first act of "The Cook" also appeals to refined palates with baked Alaska and handmade lime ice cream. But the servant in this pre-revolution Havana mansion then struggles through hard times before finding success in the 1990s running her own paladar, an informal restaurant for tourists in the mansion where she once toiled.

Food is not only a metaphor for this woman's transformation but also for the changes Cuba itself has undergone, Machado says, adding that he was inspired by a real paladar during a recent visit and a 1950s cookbook that reminded him how Cuban food has changed from complex dishes to rice-and-beans staples.

"A part of our culture has been lost," he says, adding that "in Miami, everything is overdone -- they use more spice to remember who they are; in Cuba everything is underdone because of all they lack -- no one makes cornmeal crabs anymore."

Garces says the stage will include a working oven, sink and fridge on stage and the actors will prepare and eat the baked Alaska, ice cream, tamales and other dishes. "I want the audience to smell the food," Garces says.

Food logistics also consume stage managers and actors. In "Recent Tragic Events," Colleen Werthmann's Nancy sought solace in pizza and the actress ate one-and-a-half sausage-and-green-pepper slices daily, three on matinee days. ("I run in-between shows," she says.) The original pizza was "really gross and too gummy," so production stage manager Shelli Aderman found a new place to make a special thin-crust slice with very little cheese. (Aderman says too much dairy can "phlegm up your actors" -- a lovely phrase -- adding that bread can make mouths go dry and food coloring chemicals can affect nasal passages.)

But even this improved pizza had a lasting effect. As an actor who often relies on sense memory as a trigger, Werthmann says seeing a slice brings up all the "helplessness, despair and grieving" her character felt.

"I don't know if I'll ever be able to eat pizza again," she says.


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