The following review is based on the Saturday, November 9th performance of “The Art of Dining” at the Gloria Gifford Conservatory. The show features different performers on each of the weekend evenings that it runs – Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. The play runs through December 8th.
Written by Tina Howe, “The Art of Dining” first garnered attention when it premiered Off-Broadway in 1979. Forty years later, despite the plot being based in the late 70s, this rendition of the play, which is directed by Gloria Gifford, and is currently playing at her conservatory in Los Angeles, seems as topical as ever for anyone who has ever loved food. It takes the passion for gourmet cooking to astronomically comical heights, filling it not just with the best ingredients that money can buy, but with satirical, slapstick, and physical humor. It is eager and intense in its often overlapping dialogue, with a volume turned up to 11, and is comprised of peculiarly larger-than-life characters who have fire-crackling relationships with each other and the entrées on their tables. Better yet, actual cooking transpires on stage, the actors heartily chomp down on their meals, and the audience has its olfactory sense nourished before being served a scrumptious catered buffet at the end of the show.
The New Jersey-based premise specifically examines a married couple who have taken out a $75,000 loan to make a popular makeshift restaurant out of their living room, calling it The Golden Carousel. Ellen is the chef, and her husband Cal is the maître d’ and bartender. The Asian-influenced intimate setting – which is designed by Gifford, Keturah Hamilton, and Lucy Walsh – is replete with a real golden carousel horse, unconventional purple sofa chairs that are only inches off the floor, a fully stocked kitchen with a stove, and three round dining tables for the hosts’ guests of the evening. They include the sensually charged Paul and Hannah Galt; Elizabeth, an eccentric and aspiring short-story writer who is there to meet David, an amiable publisher; and Herrick, Tony, and Nessa, who are three excitably loud party-minded women.
Chef Ellen is played by Joey Marie Urbina, who effectively gets across the pressure that her character feels upon having to feed droves of interested parties, compounded by the fact that her fervent and perhaps overly optimistic husband, Cal – portrayed by Billy Budinich — is taking down more reservations than he should and is also nervously eating everything in the kitchen. Urbina and Budinich are quirky as a culinary duo, alternating between shout-from-the-mountaintop lovey-dovey bliss and tumultuous exchanges caused by Cal driving Ellen to the edge of a nervous breakdown. Needless to say, there is never a dull moment among the two.
Paul and Hannah Galt are depicted by Chad Doreck and Keturah Hamilton, respectively. They are fortuitously stuck in the honeymoon stage of their relationship, unable to keep their hands and lips off one another. For them, the uncontrollable joy of food – even deciding on what to eat from the menu – is a double entendre for the pleasures of carnal love-making. As a pair, they epitomize Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which places food, sex, and breathing in the very same category of physiological necessities. Undoubtedly, Doreck and Hamilton’s comedic ability to engage in this insatiably epicurean repartee, which sees their personas toast even arbitrary body parts, is a highlight of the play.
Another engrossing performance is given by Kasia Pilewicz’s Elizabeth, who literally stumbles into Ellen and Cal’s home, as she suffers one funny pratfall after another due to being blind without her glasses. Wearing a Parisian beret and tattered pink Uggs, Elizabeth is exceedingly bashful, unsure of herself, and has an outlandishly adverse outlook on food that finds its cause in the upbringing by an extraordinarily disturbed mother. Elizabeth’s idiosyncrasies are dialed up even more when Haile D’Alan’s David shows up, though he is mostly an amused and charmed observer as he ebulliently eats every course without any reluctance. D’Alan’s almost scholastic delivery of lines, as contrasted with the unmitigated strangeness emoted by Pilewicz, makes for a hilarious interplay.
Finally, Leana Chavez, Samiyah Swann, and Nancy Vivar are the three rambunctious women who arrive late in their matching, sparkling gold dresses. They bicker over whose dinner belongs to whom, try futilely to pronounce the French names of drinks and dishes, and erupt in celebratory exhilaration or discordant disagreements over the slightest trigger. The actresses convey this millennial-inspired obnoxiousness well, but could have possibly benefited from varying the levels of their characters’ energy, which stays in the same hyper-frenetic range. This is a critique that applies to other characterizations as well, and to bits that sometimes go on a moment longer than they should. Nevertheless, these things don’t detract very much from the overall enjoyment of the play.
The Gloria Gifford Conservatory’s production of “The Art of Dining” is vibrantly farcical and an explosively passionate homage to the recipes of mouth-watering cuisine like roast duckling with peaches, roasted veal stuffed with wild mushrooms, Belgian oxtail soup, and much more, tailored for characters who mostly go gaga over them. With each succulent bite that the performers take on stage, audience members will feel their appetites swell beyond imagination. They will likewise respond by going “Mmmm,” enraptured by a visual and aromatic splendor, prior to finishing their full-ranged experience with flavorful food upon the comedy’s conclusion.
To purchase tickets to “The Art of Dining,” call (800) 838-3006, or go here