I love food. I’m just not in love with it. I understand the ideology of local sourcing, the ethics of organics, the romance of global influences, the beauty of a good gut, the sacrament of artful presentation. But none of that fascinates me the way the chocolate fudge layer cake at the Cheesecake Factory does. I can’t bring myself to approach eating with the learned earnestness of the true believer.
And neither, thankfully, can The Food Show. Although it makes forays into the pure, the exquisite, the medicinal, and the doctrinal, this 90-minute production mostly resists foodie pieties successfully enough to stay accessible to boors like me. The question is, what are we getting access to?
The Food Show was cooked up by the Neo-Futurists, best known for the long-running theatrical phenomenon formerly known as Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind and now called The Infinite Wrench. The concept under either name is to present 30 short performance pieces in the course of 60 minutes, each piece to be delivered—without resort to conventional role-playing—by the artist who wrote it. That is, the actors don’t “act” in the traditional sense of trying to get us to accept the illusion that they’ve become someone else. They’re nobody but themselves, using their own words.
Infinite Wrench rules remain in force for The Food Show. The ensemble of five go by their offstage names and tell autobiographical stories. (Or at least stories that convey the impression of autobiography: It’s always puzzled me that the Neo-Futurist method puts so much more faith in supposedly real personas than in the fictitious kind when both are inventions at some level, crafted for public consumption.) Bilal Dardai highlights his Muslim upbringing. Music director Spencer Meeks gives us a taste of the trauma behind his extreme pickiness (“I’ve already eaten all the food I’ll ever like”), Tif Harrison a hint of the one that caused her to stop eating for two weeks, and so on. The millennial influence being strong here, grievance and hurt figure prominently throughout. We hear a good deal alluding to the cruelty of kids, the stigma of difference, the cluelessness and/or failures of parents, and especially the casual violence of everyday life. What’s more, most of it seems to be offered for its own sake, as if, say, a memory of having to avoid Hostess Twinkies due to their lard content were self-evidently interesting. Maybe it would be, too—if, as in The Infinite Wrench, each recollection came individually wrapped in its own two-minute outburst. But arriving as they do in the context of an evening-length entertainment on a single subject, the bits and pieces begin to feel random, gratuitous, incomplete. A screed on the despoliation of the environment shows up late and out of nowhere, simply, I guess, because everyone involved knew it was expected.
In place of authentic coherence, the ensemble and director Dan Kerr-Hobert posit charm. Which works well enough now and then. An interlude where cast member Kyra Sims invites an audience volunteer to share “lunches” with her, swapping desserts like kids in a school cafeteria, works largely because Sims is so consummately gracious. (She proves later on in the show that she also possesses a gorgeous singing voice.) Likewise, Oliver Camacho creates his own weather in various passages that are not only self-revelatory but emotionally generous; he comes closer than anyone to transforming his list of hurts into the coordinates of a full-out human being, worthy of our attention and empathy.
For the most part, however, The Food Show‘s charm offensive slides past honeyed wit into something more cloying. Too much of the time I felt that the point of the exercise was to watch people who know they’re cute and funny exhibit their cute funniness. The final degradation is kazoos.
The Food Show is at its best when the cast have a reason to come out of themselves. Either that, or genuinely to absorb us into them. Camacho’s demonstration of searing a salmon is an example of the latter, providing an occasion for sexual innuendo as affecting as it is poorly concealed, and ruthlessly designed to make yet another audience volunteer squirm. The former is exemplified by sections that teach us something we may not already know, such as the tale of the scientists who martyred themselves to give us the Pure Food and Drug Act and a discussion of the five mother sauces in French cuisine. They’re not chocolate fudge layer cake, but they’ll do. v