Appetite for Destruction

Forced humor swallows The Art of Dining; in Betrayal a house collapses under treacherous games

It was a dark and stormy night. Another dark and stormy night — but after the latest deluge, at least power had been restored for The Art of Dining at Marin Theatre Company. It's possible that the cast was suffering from postflood traumatic stress syndrome, which might explain some of the dismally unfunny overacting. But maybe not.

Here's the situation: Having converted the living room of their New Jersey home into the Golden Carousel Restaurant, Ellen (Anni Long) and Cal (Jarion Monroe) are tasting desserts for that evening's menu. Ellen is a brilliant chef and Cal is an obsessive taster, so much so that he can't stop consuming whatever is in front of him. He gobbles up an entire batch of “floating island,” drains a bowl of hollandaise sauce and polishes off a bunch of grapes she needs for her roast duck. He's eating them out of house, home and business.

While they grapple with his appetite, customers begin to arrive. Table one is a seemingly contented married couple, Hannah (Maxine Wyman) and Paul (Carlos Baron). Table two gathers a group of three friends (Lissy Walker, Elizabeth Carter and Yumi Sumida), one of whom is a binge eater. Table three is a severely myopic and desperately shy writer, Elizabeth (Nancy Carlin), who is meeting her publisher, David (Daniel Caldwell), for the first time. There are hints of conflict in the various groupings, but the play's primary interest is exploring the relationship each has to food. If the association involves excess — one can't stop eating, another can't eat at all — so much the better.

Director Hope Alexander-Willis has shaped the production accordingly. Unfortunately, in her quest to mine the text's laughs, she ignores the playwright's intentions: Howe's end-of-play stage directions call for a disturbingly surreal cave-dweller celebration around a flambŽ fire, where everyone sheds the façade of tony elegance and reverts to primal instincts more savage than sophisticated. Instead, Alexander-Willis tries to pretty things up by turning them all into carousel animals.

Plus she has forgotten comedy's relationship to reality — that if the situation is so exaggerated as to be unbelievable, it just ain't funny. The opening sequence, Ellen and Cal's orgy of tasting, comes off like a pair of kids trying to top each other with silly noises. They do the standard food-as-sex routine, but it's so contrived that it barely elicits a smile. Then there's Nancy Carlin's over-the-top performance as the writer: She works so hard at being clumsy that nothing she does is even remotely humorous. She stumbles, falls, dives into people, loses her way to the restroom — oh, it's a laugh a minute.

I was eager to see The Art of Dining, because it's rarely produced. It demands a full working kitchen (sets by Richard Olmstead), and part of the play's fascination is the onstage culinary performance — Ellen stirs, chops and sautŽs throughout — worked into the narrative line. Cooking, in real time, should anchor the action (for the most part comedic and fanciful) and serve to constrain the story's outrageous elements, providing the reality necessary to produce genuine laughs. For despite Dining's comedic intentions, these characters follow their feelings about food into bittersweet territories of melancholy. To be believable and funny, they must struggle against a situation, not tumble into it eagerly.

Tina Howe's plays always use humor to disturb. They focus on people inhibited by social status or upbringing who must break down in order to break out. This happens most successfully in the award-winning Painting Churches (1983). But The Art of Dining (1979) has not yet found the balance. Its characters do break down, but the play's resolution seems wholly unearned and artificial. The same can be said for this production.

If Howe's Dining is about visible excess, Harold Pinter's Betrayal is about subterfuge and how language is used to conceal, deceive, attack and seduce. New Conservatory Theatre's production, which I saw in preview, is both faithful to the playwright's intentions and successful as stagecraft.

As in all of Pinter's work (The Birthday Party, The Caretaker and Old Times come quickly to mind), what is left unspoken is more important than what is said. The drama comes, literally, from between the lines. In Betrayal, which explores marital infidelity, tension is compounded by the play's unique structure: It begins at the end of a seven-year affair and rolls backward, scene by scene, to the instant the relationship begins. Jerry (director Paul Sulzman) successfully woos Emma (producer Louise Chegwidden), the wife of his oldest friend, Robert (Lluis Valls). Everything that transpires is a direct consequence of one boozy, romantic moment, and betrayal happens on all levels: Emma and Jerry betray Robert, Robert betrays Jerry, Emma betrays Jerry. And though Jerry is the instigator, he often seems the foil for Robert and Emma's manipulations. In the end no one emerges unbloodied; at least one marriage and one friendship have been destroyed. But the sheer propensity of these people for covert emotional violence creates a sense of inevitability in the unfolding sequence of events. They are pawns in each other's games.

As Emma, Louise Chegwidden is powerfully understated, expertly navigating a sea of complicated emotional currents. She brings a lovely sensual quality to a character whose native intelligence could easily outstrip her vulnerability and make her unsympathetic. Valls' Robert has moments in which he is as deadly as a heat-seeking missile. He is all containment, a coiled serpent waiting for his opportunity to strike. Particularly impressive, though, is Valls' carefully guarded shock when he confronts Emma and learns the truth. Sulzman is the weakest of the trio as Jerry, who seems no match for Emma and Robert. He is affecting, though, as the nice guy who gets caught double-crossing a pal. And his direction is clean, clear and results in a production that is, dare I say it, delicious.

The Art of Dining runs through April 2 at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley; call 388-5208. Betrayal continues through April 8 at S.F.'s New Conservatory Theatre; call 861-8972.

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