The University of Vermont production of Tina Howe's culinary comedy The Art of Dining obeys the cardinal rule of restaurants: The customers are the stars. True, the kitchen could use a bit more depth and variety, but there's enough fun to be had in the dining room that you leave feeling quite content. And even if you're not entirely satisfied with your meal, you'll still come away impressed with the decor.
Director Sarah E. Carleton says Dining is "a play about hunger." Voraciousness is indeed rampant at the Golden Carousel, a four-table restaurant that Cal (Patrick Buchanan) and Ellen (Melissa Quine) have opened in their home, with Ellen as chef and Cal as maitre d', waiter and chief investor. He's given up a $90,000 job and the couple has gone $75,000 into debt.
Ellen's passion for cooking was the initial inspiration, but four months after opening they seem to have become victims of their own success. Ellen is a nervous wreck, Cal can't stop eating the ingredients, the phone is ringing off the hook despite the winter storm outside, and the first guests are arriving. Breezy socialite Hannah (Ariel Kiley) and her loutish husband Paul (David Benjamin Jadwin) turn menu-reading into a competition; Elizabeth Barrow Colt (Katie Bosley), a hopelessly klutzy writer too terrified to eat, is meeting the publisher of her first book (Shane Colt Jerome); and a table of loud-mouthed grandes dames (Maryann Carlson, Elizabeth Joel Chazen, Lauren Kelston) are out to one-up each other on wine labels, diets and the best-looking meal.
Obsession with food distracts all of the characters from a more basic hunger: their inability to connect with one another. Howe's contrapuntal dialogue reflects this lack again and again; everyone's talking at each other, but no one is listening. At the same time, the playwright luxuriates in the language of cuisine: The comedy is a hymn to consumption, a paean to everything from Floating Islands to Hungry Man TV Dinners.
This is a very tricky play to pull off. The director and cast have to be as adept at juggling multiple activities as a chef who's watching several pots at once and knows when to let one dish simmer and one come to a full boil. And then there's the sheer technical challenge; Ellen does more fretting than actual cooking, but actual cooking does have to be done. A stage crew aptly garbed in tuxedo shirts and bowties has to stir and pour and ready the meals during intermission in full view of the audience.
Luckily, set designer Jeff Moder-eger has given them a splendid environment in which to work. In fact, if he ever gets tired of the theater racket, he might find a second career as an insta-designer for one of those home makeover shows on The Learning Channel. His kitchen and dining areas are gorgeous, with tongue-and-groove cabinetry, floral-trim wallpaper, gleaming pots and pans and nearly 50 wine bottles in a huge central cabinet. The size is a bit of a drawback: A more intimate space would heighten the sense that conversations and kitchen mishaps are occurring right under everyone's noses. But it's a small triumph of realistic set design just the same.
The actors have the drama down. Quine and Buchanan are entertaining; he is particularly funny when he's blithely scarfing down his wife's precious ingredients. Ellen and Cal, in both script and portrayal, are so addled and dithery that you wonder how this restaurant even opened, let alone won a fanatic clientele. But they're still finding their way into the more difficult final moments when Ellen is breaking down and Cal must find a way to get through to her. As they grow into the roles, and allow themselves to further explore why these two people love each other, the performance should be more affecting.
No such caveats are required for the two star turns of the evening. As Hannah Galt, Ariel Kiley manages to retain her innate elegance even as her character gets drunker. She pulls off some deft physical and vocal gymnastics in the process, as when she swoops beneath the table to toast her husband's lower extremities: "To one stunning pair of kneecaps!"
Katie Bosley is endearingly awkward as the mousy writer for whom everything poses a potential threat: chairs, purses, her own clothes. She's a bundle of nervous tics -- she waves, giggles, lurches, hides inside her sweater -- but is never condescending to her character. And when she blurts out her family history, which includes a turbaned, comically suicidal mother and a childhood habit of hiding meals in her napkin, the effect is at once hilarious and horrifying.
Jadwin and Jerome are good foils for their more flamboyant dinner companions, with Jadwin especially good at conveying Galt's desperate machismo. The three dueling dames are amusingly over-the-top, but so much so that they sometimes seem to be acting in a separate play all their own. That's probably an apt reflection of the characters' worldview, but it can distract from the overall rhythm of the production.
That said, Carleton -- with the help of effective lighting by John B. Forbes -- does a good job of shifting the audience focus between kitchen and dining room, and from one table to another. Martin A. Thaler's costumes -- Elizabeth's shapeless dress, Hannah's sparkly shift, the ladies' uber-fashionable outfits -- add precise dimension to each character.
Fair warning: The first act of The Art of Dining is surprisingly short. I heard a mildly disgruntled audience member mutter, "So far it's just one joke," and you might agree. But there's a more filling meal in store after intermission. And even though the big climax proves a bit anticlimactic -- it involves a flaming dessert -- Howe does succeed in making her point that in all our status consciousness and one-upsmanship, we are losing track of the real reason we eat together: the primal need to gather round the fire and "join in the feast."
At UVM's feast, you won't get the chance to share the food. But you'll have a great time with the guests.