By John Swartz
Mariposa Arts Theatre’s the Art of Dining is a play I have a hard time figuring out. Is it a play about food? Is it about people who make meals, the people who go to up-scale restaurants? I don’t know.
I’ve been into a few professional kitchens, and of course on occasion the channel changer put one of those bad cooking shows in front of my eyes ( so bad you stay just to see if it will get any worse), and our chef and maitre d (played by Tara Schell and Conal Derdall) are supercharged characterizations of the type. They are obsessively neurotic about food, their relationship to food (if one can have a relationship with food) and wife and husband.
The patrons are also supercharged personas of the kind of people who have personality changes as they pass through the door into a restaurant. You know the kind, pretty normal on the outside, food aficionados on the other side. Sally Holdsworth’s character is supposed to be the nuerotic one of the bunch, a bag full of phobias and no social skills, but I think they are all neurotic.
These are the kind of people who all of a sudden can speak French or Italian from a menu when they can barely negotiate the English language. The, “Oh my God, they have…” on the menu and they once had it on a Mediterranean cruise and it was so good, you just have to try it. These are pretentious, situational snobs through and through.
Derdall’s character eats, everything, without missing a beat in conversation, or being aware he is stuffing his mouth. This annoys Schell’s chef who invariably is reaching for the container of the next ingredient only to find it empty because Derdall ate all of it. She goes from annoyed to the kind of rage which causes a break with reality – right when everyone is expecting desert. She shuts down, which means the kitchen shuts down.
The only time anyone in the play does normal, or close to normal, is when Derdall patches things, the marriage, the kitchen, the desert and hence their business venture back together.
Of course, eating in a high end restaurant is theater. Us schlubs know it the moment we enter one. Some of us adapt as best we can, recalling etiquette and manners we’ve seen before, but never practiced. Others in our group who are more travelled ease right into it and seem to take the this is how it’s done lead, which is fine as long as it’s not overdone, and if overdone, reveals something about our friends. So we can identify with the characters. Maybe not with, but certainly we have experienced them. This helps get the humour.
The playwright, Tina Howe, is said to have written as a celebration of food. I’m not so sure it isn’t satire. It’s humorous, there are moments to laugh at sight gags or lines, but really these people would drive you nuts in real life. Come to think of it, a few of those types have driven me nuts.
I also have the thought this was like Seinfeld, a play about nothing. There isn’t a goal the script is working toward. There is no reason other than going to a restaurant all these people are in one place. Parties A, B, and C never interact with each other except in passing, and the proprietors have no effect on the patron’s lives except to not give them food poisoning.
Yet, like Seinfeld, we continue to watch to see what happens next.
Art of Dining’s Opera House run is sold out through to next Thursday’s performance and the matinee February 23 is sold out. Get tickets here.