Set Gourmet Theatre

Jimmy Durante said it best–“Everybody wants to get into the act!” Nevertheless, when the Set Gourmet Theatre announced last year its intention of presenting a dinner-theater package in which the production and the provender were served up simultaneously, show-biz pundits all over Chicago were taking bets on whether this scheme would last beyond the hors d’oeuvres. Playgoers ate it up, however, and Set Gourmet’s first project, An Affair of State, ran for a year, playing to audiences public and private. Now comes the company’s second offering, At the Reunion.

For those unfamiliar with the format, this is how it goes: the setting of the play is a dinner party at which the audience members are guests. As the meal proceeds, a story unfolds, usually involving intrigue and crime among certain of the VIPs in attendance (played by actors). The complications are resolved, with occasional assistance from the spectators, in time for coffee and after-dinner mints. (Indeed, toward the conclusion of At the Reunion, a character reminds his compatriots, “We’d better hurry and find the culprit or we’ll never get any dessert!”)

At the Reunion follows the recipe to the letter: upon entering the Stephen A. Douglas Memorial Dining Room for the Carrollton College reunion of the class of ’73, we are directed to the registration table to pick up name tags and souvenir booklets. The booklet explains that the preponderance of the number 17 in the life of the school’s founder led to the custom of celebrating reunions every 17 years. The school mascot, naturally, is the cicada. (“You can stomp us, you can squish us, kill us by the pound,” goes the college fight song. “In another 17 years, we’ll be back around.”) The college motto is “Carpe Diem Ante Meridian [sic]” (literally, “Pluck the day before it’s half over”). The waiters, uniformed in the school colors, introduce themselves as members of the High Sci Fi fraternity, the secret handshake of which I promised not to reveal, but which will be easily recognized by Star Trek fans.

The reunion planning committee is all aflutter over the return of Larry Barnard, a student who went on to become the famous movie star Dirk Turf. Seventeen years later his classmates continue to hold grudges against him for his caddish behavior as an undergraduate, and when he’s gunned down during a re-creation of a scene from his film Murder on the Evanston Express, there are plenty of likely suspects–including the mayor of Carrollton, the college dean who loves him, and the sheriff, who’s celebrating at the reunion and suddenly finds himself on duty. Dirk is the alumnus most likely to go unmourned.

It’s not Edward Albee (but Albee would dull the appetite of all but the most decadent gourmand). At the Reunion’s plot is structured loosely enough to allow for the spontaneous actor-audience interaction playgoers evidently enjoy, while keeping the story line tight enough to prevent the aimless hyperkinetic rambling that is the scourge of extended improv-comedy scenarios. The biggest problem with this form of theatre verite is maintaining the balance of the audience’s attention between the food and the floor show. Given the choice of missing one’s mouth with one’s fork and missing an actor’s big line, most audience members will opt to miss the latter. So the play must be constructed episodically to allow for chow-down time, yet still sustain the continuity of the narrative line from segment to segment.

Playwrights Rick Hall and Joseph Keefe haven’t solved this problem entirely, but they’ve made many improvements on the Affair of State formula, stringing short scenes together in twos and threes, which makes for less sporadic action and greater ease in following the various plot twists. But what makes At the Reunion’s nonsensical menu palatable is not its intricate plotting, which is no tighter than it has to be, but its surprisingly fresh humor (an Asian character is named “Wan Tan Amera,” the dean remarks to a lady who admits to having been married four times, “I love a woman who recycles!”), the topical references (Murder on the Evanston Express deals with dirty doings in the Chicago department of parking revenues), and, of course, our fantasy that we’re right there in the middle of it all. If you enjoyed “acting out” stories from books and movies as a child, this will appeal.

The missing-fourth-wall type of theater makes the performers’ duties doubly strenuous, but the entire cast of At the Reunion engage their one-dimensional characters with agility and enthusiasm. As the mother-and-daughter ingenues Yvonne and Isabelle, Melody Rae and Elisa Surmont are all wide-eyed winsomeness. Catherine O’Connor vamps it up with gusto as Dixie, the barracuda belle with a heart of gold. (“Where did you get that accent?” Dirk sneers. To which she retorts, “The same place where you got your new name!”) Eric Artherhults plays the brainy-but-nerdish Roger with more charm than the role requires (but who said smart isn’t sexy?), Wes Holden is perfectly loathsome as the baby-faced Dirk, and Mark Morettini is a properly befuddled Roy, the small-town sheriff forced to put aside his personal sentiments in the pursuit of justice. Stealing the show, however, are Frank Peoples as the pompous and porcine Mayor “Big Jake” Lansky, Elizabeth Holmes as the stalwart Dean Fitch, and the versatile J.D. Lloyd as Old Bob, the Polonius-like janitor who’s so ubiquitous he seems to be more than one person. (Not to give away any of the plot secrets, but before the play is over, we are witness to the truly bizarre sight of a man in a hand-to-hand duel to the death with himself.) Set designers Richard and Jacqueline Penrod and set decorator Valerie Seavoy have transformed the interior of Set Gourmet’s auditorium into a flawlessly detailed replica of a mid- 19th-century banquet hall, and lighting designer Michael Mix juggles his ceiling full of instruments with a sure hand, keeping the rapidly moving action always clearly visible.

At the Reunion is not for everyone, and theatergoing purists may object to this kind of bread-and-circus approach to dramatic appreciation. But given the general trend in our culture toward one-stop convenience in all matters, the Set Gourmet Theatre represents a logical and innovative concept in entertainment, and At the Reunion is a pleasant and innocuous accompaniment to an excellent dinner (credit to chef Rich Ladd and his staff).