Lights rise and fall alternately on three different groups of diners. In one scene, a couple points at the menus, oohing and aahing provocatively over items too decadent to be spoken aloud. In another, an agoraphobic writer recalls her childhood tactic of cleaning her plate by transferring its contents into her napkin, one mouthful at a time.
Each scene is funny on its own. The characters' spats, misunderstandings and phobias are immediately recognizable, and the sincerity with which the actors approach these scenes makes the mundane/absurd dialogue that much funnier.
But after the aforementioned breasts have been critiqued, the duckling garnished, the hollandaise guzzled, and so on, another question lingers, namely: "Can a flaming dessert really take the place of months of couple's therapy?"
While this is clearly a play about food, it is also a play about people who do not listen. On this frigid November evening at The Golden Carousel, the Not Listening is rife. Couples talk at cross-purposes, friends prove too self-involved to hear and sympathize with each other's insecurities, and the restaurateurs' marriage teeters on the brink for lack of listening.
Then there is wine, a soup course, more Not Listening, and an entree, followed by an improvised dessert — Crepes Carousels — that miraculously calms the hubbub. This ending, tacked onto a script that seems more like sketch comedy than a single unified story, feels forced, unprepared.
It is unclear whether director Kay Kleinerman, who has deftly shaped the preceding scenes, could have done more to finesse this moment, or if the fault lies with the playwright.
The pat ending, though, is only one of the script's challenges.
Two of the first rules drilled into actors' heads are: 1) Don't step on each other's lines, and 2) Really listen to the other characters. But Howe's choppy, overlapping dialogue forces the actors to unlearn this basic training. Consider the following exchange:
Hannah: I hardly had anything.
Paul: You should have seen the plum tart I had for dessert...
Hannah: Just an omelette.
Paul: The pastry shell alone...
Hannah: I thought of having a muffin with it...
Paul: ...was unbelievable!
Hannah: Only a half, of course...
Paul: It could have been served on its own.
Hannah: But I didn't.
Luckily, Maggie Ziomek (Hannah) and Jeff Swan (Paul) handle these passages well, keeping them brisk yet intelligible. John Baldwin (Cal), on the other hand, never quite catches the rhythm. His opening scene with Sondra Putnam (Ellen) sets a slow pace that is thankfully rectified by Paul and Hannah's arrival.
Maureen Coyne, as the neurotic writer, handles her character's sudden shifts nicely, from introverted mumble to panicky outburst. As her dinner companion and potential publisher, Kevin Copps provides a gentle, if bland, baseline of normalcy.
Mary Lou Torre, Dana Zook, and Kyla Gibboney play a trio of thirty-somethings who occupy the remaining table; their game of "musical entrees" is one of the show's funniest (and sharpest) bits. Gibboney is by far the most dynamic presence on stage, though not entirely to the good. While her energy is admirable, she doesn't always blend with the other actors, and her sudden gestures draw focus from other scenes even when her table is in relative darkness.
In addition to the quirky acting style demanded by the text, the script poses significant technical challenges, which have been handled remarkably well by the show's designers.
Ron Gasparinetti's colorful set uses the limited space well, encompassing kitchen and dining area without feeling crowded. The modern kitchen is convincing in its smallest details, and Gasparinetti reinforces the carousel theme with his rounded crown molding in the dining area.
Brendan Bartholomew's lighting design is effective in isolating individual tables when necessary (a tricky task on a small stage), yet the overall illumination is seamless when the entire stage is lit.
The uncredited person or persons responsible for props also deserve accolades. With numerous dishes prepared, served, and/or eaten in full view of the audience, this is a prop-heavy show, and miming the food is not a viable option — the farcical elements too often rely on distinguishing a full bowl of grapes (for instance) from an empty one. Dragon Productions has stocked the pantry, and the actors leave the theater less hungry than when they arrived.
In the end, "The Art of Dining" is a thoroughly entertaining show, if less profound than it would like to be — ideal fare to share with family and friends on a relaxed summer evening. And don't worry: the folks at Dragon won't mind at all if you go back for seconds.
What: "The Art of Dining," a play presented by Dragon Productions Theatre Company
Where: Dragon Theatre, 539 Alma St., Palo Alto
When: Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., through July 2
Cost: Tickets are $15 general admission, $10 for students and seniors.
Info: Call the box office at (650) 493-2006. For more information, or for ticketing online, go to www.dragonproductions.net.
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