On the good side was a the set, spectacularly well done by Ron Gasparintetti to give us a full kitchen upstage, and an intimate dining area downstage. Lighting by Brendan Bartholomew was also excellent, a difficult job well done of bringing the focus where it needed to be, reinforcing the concept that though the audience can see the action in the kitchen behind the dining area, the diners could not.
The author gets us off on the wrong foot right away with the name of the play, which is not about dining, except in passing. The play is set in the new Golden Carousel Restaurant, which is actually the kitchen and livingroom in the home of Chef Ellen (Sondra Putnam) and husband and Waiter/Maitre d' Cal (John Baldwin). The play starts with them at one of the tables, eating dessert. They spend about 5 minutes oohing and aahing over two small plates of something. After too long, we get the idea that each has a different dessert, and eventually they share and continue to exude over the fare. Howe subscribes to the "everyone talk at once like we do in Real Life" school of play writing, and while this works in certain situations, this wasn't one of them. And most of the play is like this - people having alleged conversations where what one person says is being ignored by the other person.
Cal and Ellen finish the dessert rapture, and go back into the kitchen, where Cal blatantly finishes one of the desserts right out of the bowl, while Ellen, staring right at him, yammers about preparing the meals for the evening. Way later in the play she notices that one dessert is completely gone. Cal eats everything in sight, which should be a funny running gag, but the director doesn't call attention to this until the script insists on it, and by then it is way too late.
After way too much exposition on the parts of Cal and Ellen, and a couple of phone calls whereby we learn that Cal always says they have plenty of room and Ellen always says they are booked solid, we meet the first two diners. Paul (Jeff Swan) and Hannah (Maggie Ziomek) are a middle-aged couple, there because they are gourmet food buffs, and "everyone" says the Carousel has the best food in the world. They too spend their first several minutes talking at the same time over each other, not listening to a word the other one is saying. After way too long Cal gives them a menu, and the couple start laughing over what seems to be absurd combinations of menu items, but since they don't actually tell us it's all a big inside joke, lost on the audience. After the amusements, Hannah has an issue with ordering - she is afraid of making up her mind. Psychotically afraid. INstead of Cal helping out as a good waiter would, he just stands back and lets Paul baby her into a choice.
Cal's character is very un-waiter-like through the show, chalk it up to poor writing. His lines are often inane and not at all what a high class waiter would say.
The first act was very short - about 30 minutes - and took the audience by surprise when it ended. Either lots of lines were dropped, or the play is awkwardly divided. Or both.
Our next unreal character is Elizabeth (Maureen Coyne), a writer of short stories who has a blind date with a publisher. Blind in more ways than one - one of Elizabeth's myriad oddities is she can't see at all without her glasses, and refuses to wear them in public. But that's a minor idiosyncrasy compared to the fact that she comes across as never having eaten in public -- ever. Coyne, IMHO, is the only one in this cast who fit her part both physically and in acting ability. She pulls off a couple of monologues which had the subtext of "you can't take this person anywhere - she will embarrass the hell out of you". Too bad her table partner was not on a par. From his lines, we learn that David Osslow is an obese, out-of-shape man, but the actor playing the role, Kevin Copps, looks like he jogs three miles a day at lunchtime, plays tennis and will probably be in the next 10k race. His lines about loving to eat and his doctor telling him to lose weight fall completely flat. Otherwise he does as best he can with this somewhat lamely written part.
Finally on stage are a trio of what I suspect are supposed to be young female admin assistant types. This is a birthday dinner for Tony (Kyla Gibbony) with her pals Herrick (Mary Lou Torre) and Nessa (Dana Zook). I suspect from the name that Herrick was originally written as a man's role (though the script says otherwise). Nessa and Tony are obviously roommates, and Herrick is not. Also, Mary Lou Torre is old enough to be the other two's mother. There is much insanity as, after taking maybe two bites, Tony declares she is stuffed, can't eat any more, needs to lose 12 pounds, and is so very fat. Which of course means she should be played by someone incredibly skinny, which Ms. Gibbony is not. She's HWP, which takes away a lot (for me) from the effect of the lines. Again, way over the top, implausible characters.
Keeping in character, the play has an implausible ending, which absolutely does not follow what comes before it, and pretty much put the final nail in the coffin for me.
The Art of Dining continues at Dragon Productions through July 2. 535 Alma Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301 (650) 493-2006.
Okay, so it wasn't the best play. But it's live theater by professional actors in a very small, intimate space and I'll continue to see their shows. And just because I didn't like it doesn't mean you won't.