"A kitchen is always a dramatic place," Indy food critic Besha Rodell informs me. "There's knives and hot oil. All chefs are bastards. And they know how to use them." I'd asked Rodell to ride shotgun with me Saturday afternoon for A Southern Season's first foray into culinary theater, Hang Town Fry, a one-act domestic drama by restaurant worker--and News & Observer theater critic--Adam Sobsey. After reporting last season on The Last Supper, in which New Yorker Ed Schmidt prepared dinner during the performance (see "Domestic Drama," Aug. 6, 2003), I was intrigued to learn that Sobsey's drama about food opened in Austin, Texas in 1999--two years prior to Schmidt's Brooklyn world premiere.
This production features strong work by Christine Morris as Cynthia, a chef with more than a spark of M.F.K. Fisher about her, and Harvey Sage as her husband, Sol. Also on stage (and in the audience) is the title dish itself, a fritatta from the American West made of egg, breaded oysters and scallions.
But since the performance ends with a delicious--but small--serving of the title dish accompanied by a nice dry Riesling, it would be misleading to call the production "dinner theater." Perhaps "demitasse drama" or "theater antipasto" instead?
Food first--and a confession about the other reason I wanted an expert on deck for this assignment: I've never liked oysters.
As it turns out, I do now--at least in Hang Town Fry. Rodell concurs: "The dish itself was quite good; the eggs go a long way toward taming the pungent oyster. The breaded and fried oyster was light and not too oily, and the bacon--which was not included in Cynthia's recipe--set it off very well. The dry Riesling was a nice choice.
"What's done well here is the connection between food and memory," she continues, "how important it is for some women to be the one who nourishes or withholds nourishment, and how literal this can become."
Indeed. What begins as a cooking class in Cynthia's home seems to turn into an act of public revenge against her husband--a moody, post-stroke victim who has lost the ability to talk. In short order, Cynthia's learned digressions on knives, habits, foodstuffs and the proper roles of women and men become a lot more pointed, and aimed in one direction--toward the man she blames for the loss of their son. These are calculated acts of indictment and disclosure against someone now incapable of speaking back, debating or defending himself.
But the prepared dish, unexpectedly, becomes an act of shared contrition. We're ultimately watching two characters eating their hearts out at the end. At that point, the gourmet quality of the ingredients doesn't matter: No culinary artist has yet devised an acceptable presentation or seasoning for ashes.
Indeed, bitterness becomes so vividly identified with the title dish by the end, both of us had a problem as a result. "It was good when it got on the plate," Rodell recalls, "but at the end of the play I was thinking, 'I don't want to eat that. I don't want to eat a plate of someone else's misery.'"
There was no shortage of literary moments throughout Sobsey's script. Rodell savored Cynthia's mid-show questions: "Am I savory? Am I nutritious?"
"That kind of food metaphor is incredibly rich," Rodell says, "especially within the confines of that relationship."
But other food metaphors--including the central one, involving Cynthia's metaphorical identity as city oyster and Sol's alter ego, the country egg--became so belabored and extended that they didn't fare as well in either of our books. Such unnecessary underlinings made me wonder if Sobsey didn't trust his writing or his audience--when by this point he clearly should trust both.
Judicious pruning of Cynthia's metaphysical thicket might also allow more opportunity for necessary, but presently absent, parts of the story to emerge. As things stand, Hang Town Fry tries to convey too much of a son's full identity--and a family's full drama--in a single anecdote.
But we can't fully buy or appreciate the dimensions of a family crisis in a Chinese restaurant, because we never begin to have adequate information about the events that preceded it.
The same must be said for the child's ultimate loss: We never begin to know what made things so hellish for him. Was the father physically abusing the child? If so, how could mother and child chance the plot device of openly revisiting the same restaurant every time the family went to San Francisco?
Another missing link for Rodell involves the mother's guilt for the son's loss. If the son doesn't blame her as much as he blames the father--for what, it's never clear--why would there be a need to lose contact with them both?
"That's something that's really missing for me," Rodell says. "They seem so close in the restaurant. We see this really beautiful moment with him, and then we see him leaving. Those are the only two moments we see them together. He obviously has very strong feelings against her also in that moment he leaves. But we don't get that at all from the script. There's no hint of why that would be."
I had a final problem with the show's believability. In the context, Cynthia's behavior is so premeditated it's totally unbelievable: You can't imagine a single person in the room wanting to hire her after committing so vivid a form of professional suicide. Such a public act of grief is powerful and poetic. But the logic of the family "outing" it takes to get there, in this context, folds under its own weight. Particularly when entire--and crucial--sections of the story remain untold at the end. Instead, Cynthia seems to victimize both husband and audience in the quest to get only the choicest sections of her untold story heard.
***1/2 A Moon for the Misbegotten , Deep Dish Theater--The many pleasures in this production of O'Neill's classic domestic drama include the triumphant regional return of Helen Hagen as the rough-edged Josie, whose long-denied desires and hopes inexorably implode during one sleepless night on a failing Connecticut tenant farm in 1923. Director Tony Lea goes for imaginative, unexpected choices, crafting the surprisingly intimate, interior feel of Tom Marriot's interpretation as the Hogan clan's prickly patriarch, Phil. But did a curmudgeon this charming really strike terror in the hearts of his sons? The rawness of Hagen's work suggests a cello line from Bartok, not so much played as sliced into, remorselessly. But did she, Lea and John Allore, as the dissipated James Tyrone, ever determine what finally defines James as a dead man in Josie's eyes, as she holds him in the rosy dawn? (Through March 5. $14-$10. 968-1515.)
***The Wise Ones , N.C. Central University--Howard Craft's courageous play focused on the internal divisions in a small black Alabama community when some of the locals open their doors to SNCC activists organizing a voter-registration drive during the Civil Rights movement. But when all actors on stage weren't up to the caliber of Gil Faison's work as bootlegger Silas, it showed, particularly when projection difficulties prevented some characters from being heard. Pamela McGill was also notable as Silas' wife, Ruth. Craft's script explored most of his main characters' positions, but a sudden ending suggested a call cut off in mid-conversation more than an organic ending to a play. Our (hopefully) helpful question to the playwright: Is this script actually finished? (Closed Feb. 13.)
**1/2 Venus, Raleigh Ensemble Players--When the ensemble and director seem more committed to the characters than the playwright is, there's a problem. Suzan-Lori Parks' painfully postmodern text is inexcusably sloppy, self-indulgent--and curiously unimaginative: substituting pointlessly reiterated alphanumerals, doggerel verse and even lists of characters for scriptwriting that might have actually developed characters or situations.
Though historical documents have added verisimilitude to works like Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecencies, this botched cut-and-paste job ironically underlines the missing center in Parks' vision of title character Saartjie Baartman, the Khoikhoi woman taken from Africa and exhibited in freak shows in England and France as "The Venus Hottentot" from 1810 to her death in 1815.
Despite historic, legal, medical and forensic effluvia, at the end all we know of Baartman herself (besides her victimage) is that she wanted to be loved, make money and retire rich. Parks' heroine remains a conveniently simple, unsophisticated rube trapped in a carny world.
In the title role, a nearly nude Barbette Hunter makes absolutely the most of Parks' thin gruel. Kevin Poole turns in career-high work as well, as The Baron Docteur. Thaddeus Edwards makes an evilly gleeful host as The Negro Resurrectionist.
Glen Matthews cages the audience in Miyuki Su's cunning set, before his ensemble imaginatively represents the denizens of a freak show world. At points he admirably finishes Parks' uncompleted--in some places, unbegun--script.
Venus is at its most successful when it focuses on the historic economic and class disconnections between performers and audience--and a corresponding disconnect involving the conscience as well. But the cynical literary shell game Parks runs on her audience is unfortunately more alarming than the depicted con games that cost Baartman her life. Step right up. (Through Feb. 25. $15-$10. 832-9607.)
Byron Woods can be reached at email@example.com.