at Cafe Voltaire


Avenue Theatre

The menu at Cafe Voltaire features items like vegetarian sloppy joes, sesame noodles, and peach-apricot-strawberry milk shakes. But the main course in Alan Ball’s clever comedy Power Lunch, presented as an experience in “environmental urban dinner theater,” is fantasy. Make that fantasies–the immature, improbable, sometimes interchangeable secret notions of a man and woman trying to balance their urges to compete, copulate, and connect.

He’s a pushy, Porsche-driving young exec who carries a portable phone and the latest Playboy in his black leather attache case. She’s a tough-edged corporate climber who wears a silk scarf as a substitute necktie–“a superficial and totally absurd symbol that one must display to be taken seriously in the male-dominated business world,” she fumes. Meeting by chance in a fern-bar eatery, they fight, flirt, and testily test the waters of a possible new relationship. She wants “a man who is smart, funny, confident, sensitive, affectionate, gentle, strong, independent, committed, caring, stable, and willing to take risks”; she also dreams of Mel Gibson dressed in nothing but Saran Wrap. He’d like “a tall, large-breasted temptress who wears her sex like cheap perfume.” Neither fills the other’s bill, but when strains of samba music suddenly burst from nowhere, they can’t resist dancing.

Played with a nice mix of sarcastic sophistication and adolescent awkwardness by Tony Mockus Jr. and Kelley Hazen, the man and woman think they understand each other. It’s the enlightened 90s, after all; they’re both players on the same cutthroat corporate field, and the sexual candor of the times invites them to dispense with pretense in comparing emotional and erotic tastes. But biology and sociology have conspired to create differences between them that they can only begin to erase by changing places–which they do. With no outward alterations in appearance, each briefly takes on the other’s gender identity, exploring new approaches to power. Their transsexual samplings are prompted by the archetypal “androgynous waiter,” who starts out as Dorothy (played with not a hint of femaleness by burly Jim Tillett) and winds up as Donald (the beautiful Megan Moore Burns).

Recalling a Second City sketch with elements of Christopher Durang in his absurdist Beyond Therapy mode, Power Lunch starts out like a stereotyped yuppie-dating spoof, but over its one-hour running time it gains strength as a light, amusing satire on a world where pretensions of equality clash with insistent inequities of class and gender, and where concern with being a better person collides with the drive to succeed at all costs. Peppered with psycho-babble cliches, Ball’s dialogue wackily charts his characters’ paranoid procession through conflicting currents of sexist tradition and postfeminist possibilities; Deya Friedman’s direction moves the action briskly through Cafe Voltaire’s restaurant space, as the actors dance, debate, hop, and hump around the audience’s dining tables. At this week’s preview, the performers’ concern with logistics put something of a damper on their spontaneity and spirit; but with more exposure to a real audience they should rise to the goofy, high-strung energy level the script demands.

The world of Power Lunch makes the world of The Fantasticks seem astonishingly quaint. In Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s 1960 musical, which also takes as its topic the ridiculous fantasies of a young couple, the romance of Matt and Luisa is fueled by the wall that literally and symbolically divides them; after intimacy leaves them bored with each other, Matt heads off to seek adventure while Luisa submissively stays home and waits until her weary, beaten, but more mature boyfriend returns to reclaim her. Yet despite the story’s datedness, a collection of exquisite light-jazz songs and a wryly poetic script (inspired by Edmond Rostand’s Les romanesques) can make The Fantasticks (still running off-Broadway 32 years after its premiere, making it the longest-running show in history) work like a charm.

That is, if the production maintains a reasonable level of quality. But if The Fantasticks had opened off-Broadway in this staging, by Roger Dale, it wouldn’t have lasted three nights, much less three decades. Flat where it should be fizzy and pompous where it should be puckish, the Avenue Theatre’s performance is amateur theater at its worst. Under Scott K. Hoffman’s musical direction and frequently inaccurately accompanied by Philip Seward, the love songs are dragged to death and the fast songs are frequently out of time and out of tune; the actors, who push reasonably attractive voices far beyond the limits of what these delicate songs require, offer shallow and unfocused characterizations; and inept direction muddies the emotional dynamics between the young couple, their bickering parents, and the all-knowing narrator El Gallo. The show is a shambles, sure to disappoint Fantasticks fans and to mislead newcomers to this lovely but difficult show. Stay away.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Thomas Lascher.