The Art of Dining

Footsteps Theatre Company

Part of what distinguishes Tina Howe’s poetic tragicomic plays are their extravagantly civilized settings–an art museum, a Beacon Hill mansion, a French restaurant, among others. At the same time, Howe uncovers the powerful primal urges people attempt to hide behind these civilized facades. In her work she plays with our perceptions of public and private, repression and consciousness, primitive and refined. And “play” is definitely key: her ebullient, often manic sense of humor allows us to look into the dark, painful areas of the human condition without becoming hopeless–a Tina Howe play integrates shadow and light. Her characters absolutely belong in their lush settings–they’re usually outspoken, dramatic, larger than life–yet they’re capable of honesty and simplicity.

Complex, original female characters also make Howe a significant figure in the landscape of contemporary American theater: she explores women’s obsessions, their sensuality, their intelligence and aesthetics with a gutsy bravado often missing in plays by men. Women artists are fixtures in Howe’s work, from Mags, the successful New York-based artist in Painting Churches who returns to Boston to paint her aging parents’ portraits, to Agnes Vaag in Museum (who never actually appears but is exalted and gossiped about by other women), an artist who digs in the woods to find material for her striking primal art. These women seem to be in contact with a force deeper and richer than what occupies the psyche’s surface, and their creative powers enable them to touch the aching, inner void all the characters are yearning to fill.

In The Art of Dining, currently running at Footsteps Theatre, the central artist is Ellen, chef and co-owner of the Golden Carousel, a French restaurant, and her medium is food. What better way for Howe to explore the dynamic between our fundamental need for nourishment and the psychological and social meanings we give the act of eating? Setting her play in the kitchen and dining room of the Golden Carousel, Howe introduces us to Ellen and her husband Cal–a lawyer who gave up his practice to be headwaiter–and shows us the tension between the preparing of food and its artful presentation. Exploring the diners’ hopes, expectations, and fears, Howe creates dialogue akin to a musical score in its rhythms, layering, climaxes, and silences, making an evening at a restaurant a sort of symphony of guilt and pleasure, joy and pain.

Footsteps’ production of this 1979 work is worthy and often delightful. Angela Marie Hendricksen’s whimsical set brings the Golden Carousel to life the moment we enter the theater. In Howe’s plays it’s essential to think of the set as one of the characters: the intricacies and depth of the environment help motivate the action. Hendricksen’s painted backdrop suggests the restaurant rather than making it concrete, capturing Ellen’s kitchen in a clutter of equipment, drawers, and utensils and in lovely details like a cat sitting on top of the refrigerator. The dining room is contemporary, trendy, a mix of intense colors, fine crystal, and playful antiques. Atmosphere as well as food defines the Golden Carousel.

Director Cheryl LeSage entices us into Ellen and Cal’s sensual, restless world in the opening scene. Sitting at different tables in the empty dining room, they sample various desserts, oohing and aahing and describing what they’re eating. Finally they’re in each other’s desserts, spooning them up, feeding each other, until the last drop of sauce is consumed. Physical and fun, Jean Adamak and Brad Harbaugh as Ellen and Cal here use Howe’s language to really connect to each other. As the play progresses, however, they sometimes lose this connection, getting so caught up in the physical business that they overlook the more subtle aspects of the dialogue. By emphasizing the physical comedy in Ellen and Cal’s fights, LeSage slights the deeper motivations for their tensions. Still, both actors have many fine moments. When Ellen says to a bass, “Just look at you, you sad beauty…all silver and slippery, with such a mournful face,” Adamak brings out Ellen’s almost motherly love, and in the next beat her brutality as she zestfully sharpens her cleaver. Harbaugh is most successful when Cal’s working the floor, wanting to please all the customers, patiently balancing each table’s demands. (Anyone who’s ever waited tables will appreciate Cal’s anxiety.)

The focus shifts to three groups of diners. The first of the evening are classy Hannah and Paul Galt, a middle-aged married couple. Rachel Hemphil and Bill Underwood, who are sparkling to watch, hit the Galts right on: from the first glance at the menu to the final brandy, their meal is a journey into marital intimacy, as their different approaches to dining out are finally resolved. The tension between them is so playful and engaging I couldn’t wait for the next dinner guests.

A trio of ladies who come to dine and be seen are fun but could have been more extreme. The Great Carousel is in New Jersey, and these are definitely New York City ladies; Howe captures their essence in such lines as, “I’d just had lunch with Phillip and was looking in Tiffany’s windows. I turned to cross 57th Street…” In this production the ladies seem more midwestern-suburban in their reserve and dowdy fashion sense. These women delight in the spectacle of dining out, the chance to show one another up as they compete over wine pronunciation, who ordered the best dish, and–most important–who has the smallest appetite. Kate Sherry, Deborah Frieden, and Jenny Noa play well off each other, creating some funny moments; but their scene would have made a stronger statement if they’d had thicker facades to break through. Allowing yourself to delight in food in front of other women in a culture that values thinness so highly becomes an act of courage in Howe’s play, and dining out for these ladies should be like entering a war zone.

The exchanges between reclusive short-story writer Elizabeth Barrow Colt and the hearty, healthy publisher she meets for dinner, David Oslow, are based on respectful listening: here some of Howe’s most powerful dialogue is given the attention it deserves. Aimee Bruneau is intensely effective as Barrow Colt, taking us through the character’s dramatic transformation in a dignified, prudent New England manner appropriate to Howe. Revealing to Oslow the reason she doesn’t eat through vivid memories of her childhood dinners, Bruneau’s Barrow Colt is never melodramatic, touching her pain with a brave honesty. When Oslow tells her she has beautiful eyes, it truly turns her life upside down. It is in these offhand moments that Howe recalls Chekhov: even the most mundane incident has the potential to change our existence. Barrow Colt is another of Howe’s female artists who start to overcome their anguish by looking it in the face; and the other, more repressed characters are clearly moved by her strength.

The Art of Dining reminds us of the passion we humans invest in being nourished and sustained. In these times of excess, Howe’s work makes us thoughtfully consider the act of consuming. And she captures the passion of eating though the art of theater: going to a play, like partaking in a fine meal, should be a ritual of sharing, of expressing our deepest, often neglected passions.