Northlight Theatre

The scene is nouvelle cuisine, at one of those restaurants where the waiter’s presentation verges on performance art. As you may know, there’s more to it than just sitting down and eating. It’s a complete social context that allows the diner to impersonate a gourmet, and the waiter to impersonate a New Yorker comic. It’s a place to meet friends and dispose of income. It facilitates conversation on a superficial, uninvolved level, and before the shallowness of it all becomes unbearable, you can fight over the check and get the hell out of there. Even the pauses are covered by the relentless background tinkering of some pianist knocking out moody but somehow upbeat, barely obtrusive melodies. Sure it’s overpriced, but hey, you’re worth it.

“Food is entertainment.” That’s how a friend of mine, an editor turned restaurateur, once put it. And now, Craig Lucas, the author of Blue Window, has theatricalized this phenomenon in Three Postcards, a low-key musical and lower key character study.

Three friends–Big Jane, Little Jane, and K.C.–meet at a foofy, upscale restaurant. You might call them yuppies, but they’re not so young anymore, and besides, Big Jane, who has just taken a job as a phone solicitor, is a professional failure. The other women have their problems too. K.C.’s mother just died, and Little Jane’s husband is straying. But it’s hard to care about their problems. Mostly you want them to shut up. You want them to eat and go home. After an hour and a half you want them forcibly removed.

No, these characters aren’t all that inspiring. You get the feeling that they spend most of their lives in front of the mirror, and they still don’t know who they are. It’s interesting, however, that playwright Lucas has drawn them with such sympathy and sentimentalism. One might even say that Lucas is fascinated with these people. Why is it, then, that Big Jane, Little Jane, and K.C. don’t emerge as compelling characters, whatever their faults? Why do you walk out of the theater knowing no more than you did at first glance, with your prejudice against these bourgeois idiots both confirmed and unexamined? Perhaps it’s because Lucas, although he finds few redeeming qualities in the three women, admires them anyway. If so, that admiration isn’t contagious.

But maybe it’s not admiration, but rather a sort of covert misogyny. That would explain why the waiter, and not one of the women, is the most sympathetic character in the play. And since it’s strongly suggested that the waiter is gay, we have the nouvelle classic scene of a gay man waiting on a table of three heterosexual women. Having provided this perspective, the playwright is now free to portray the three friends as airheads, while contrasting them with the witty gay proletarian whose pride is compromised but not undermined by his servitude in a world of women. What’s more, Lucas can hedge his political impunity by lavishing lovable, quirky characteristics upon these essentially useless (except as dancing partners) women.

Still, the women aren’t lovable. Ornamental, sure. They too say witty things. Big Jane, for instance, asks if it’s OK to pour the wine herself. Little Jane says no: “The wine police will come and you will die.” Even the overall pattern of the dinner conversation–non sequitur after non sequitur–is as infuriatingly hard to follow as it is ditzy. (The rhetorical analog of the woman driver.) And when the women sing, as often as not it’s a song of failed love or the failure to find love. Yet all there is to love are their clothes, their hair, their silly ways.

The one woman we learn anything about is Little Jane. Time and again Little Jane refers to a dream in which she stands in an empty room. She finds it impossible to describe that dream, or how she feels about it, because the feeling keeps changing. Now it doesn’t take Carl Jung to figure out that there is a troubling void in Little Jane’s life. Does Little Jane figure that out? No. And are we supposed to care? Beats me.

There’s less to glean of Big Jane and K.C., although they too have their songs and enigmatic lines. Indeed, the play is deliberately fragmented so that it suggests more than it delivers. It’s like a conversation overheard from a neighboring table. Sometimes this dramatic teasing is a bit precious, like when K.C. describes her Chinese designer dog (you know, the breed with the wrinkles). “He’s so thrilled to be alive,” says K.C., followed by a pregnant pause reminiscent of her dead mother. Other times the incompleteness of the characterizations effectively reflects the incompleteness in the characters’ lives. And still other times, it’s just a case of the playwright showing off his style in a gratuitous way–a choppy collage of fantasy interludes, song and dance numbers, and recurring metaphors. To use Lucas’s own metaphor, the presentation is more important than the food itself.

Not to say that the play isn’t funny, although the humor is largely a matter of yuppie cosmopolitan in-jokes. The menu alone is hysterical, from the cream of fennel soup to the kumquat citrus pie. The musical numbers (Craig Carnelia, composer) are generally that spongy, retread Broadway stuff. Little Jane’s narcissistic fantasy number, however, is great. She imagines the pianist adoring her body, her mannerisms, even the color of her underwear, as the waiter waltzes her around the stage, extolling, in song, “the way you make me your slave.” It’s just like one of those Charlie perfume commercials.

The best female performance is given by Oksana Fedunyszyn as Little Jane. Although Little Jane is essentially a stereotype, Fedunyszyn’s characterization is prototypical. And henceforward, the women I meet who remind me of Little Jane will seem like rough copies, and their hairdos will lack vigor. D.C. Anderson plays the waiter, and his performance ranges from very good to kick-ass. Anderson’s waiter gives great attitude: a mixture of sarcasm, condescension, and angry tolerance. And, although we learn less about the waiter than the three women, we’re led to believe that he has fallen upon hard and disillusioning times, as he cruises about the dining room in his turquoise jewelry and modified harem pants.

In the end, I’m uncertain as to how I’m supposed to respond to this play. My glimpse into the private lives of the main characters, the three women, leaves me flat. They’re shallow and deserving of all the ennui they suffer. I remain unsatisfied with such pretentious caricatures, and the only thing I learned from this play is to avoid such people and restaurants in the future. As I left the theater, the folks in front of me joked about asking for a refund. Yes, you feel ripped off, elegantly and tastefully ripped off. It’s as if a trendy but incomprehensible meal has been laid before you, and you don’t know which parts are for consumption and which parts are pure decoration. The waiter makes you feel like a jerk, and you have the vague suspicion that somewhere in the back the chef is having a big laugh at your expense.