It's not just the frequent stunt casting, the get-someone-familiar imperative that makes it possible to bump into Mrs. Garrett and Radar O'Reilly at Whole Foods. It isn't just the shows themselves, the Nunsenses and Music Mans, fare as safe and solid as the food, shows that go down with a minimum of chewing. No. It's that arts, theater and dinner have as much to do with one another as haberdashery and massage, as portraiture and roller-coaster design, and it's not sensible to trust someone adept at one to simultaneously provide the other. This Saturday, '80s funk heroes the Time hit town; nobody is hoping that Morris Day plans to cater.
Twice recently, duty has compelled me to eat at plays. First at the New Theatre, where dinner is less an art than it is a service provided -- nothing to upset the diabetics but nothing to coo over, either. The show, though, is robust enough to make up for it.
Farah Alvin stars as Fanny Brice, the real-life vaudeville comedienne who, by intermission, has risen from hardscrabble chorus girl to headline The Ziegfield Follies. Much is made of Brice's looks: We're told in song and dialogue that she's not beautiful, that she'll never succeed onstage, despite an outsize presence and a voice your family could summer in. We're told she's funny-looking, but Alvin is a knockout, a thoroughly winning performer who, in her first number alone, kills at fast-talk patter and big, Broadway belting. Minutes later, she manages to telegraph both Brice's deep insecurity and supreme confidence, all while flailing around on roller skates.
The chatter about Brice's funny looks is code for her Jewishness, an angle the show treats mostly as subtext. Through the first hour, as Fanny grows into a star, she -- like her contemporary, Groucho Marx -- delights in taking caustic, comic revenge on the world of wealth and luxury, even as she demands the right to live there herself.
For an hour and change, director Richard Carrothers parades pleasure after pleasure: the starlet's rise, numbers from the Follies, amusing scenes of Brice's family. (As her mother, KC's Jeanne Averill connects hard with each line.)
Soon, Fanny falls for a tuxedoed gambler (Kaleo Griffith). Their first kiss is played beautifully in silence; in the big seduction scene, song, story, and performance coalesce with force and emotional clarity. Brice's struggle between fear and arousal is achieved with techniques impossible anywhere outside musical theatre. It's also funny as hell.
Things slow after intermission, and the short second act traces Brice's troubled marriage. The scenes grow longer, and the songs become more strenuous and less melodic. Tonally, it's jarring, and it all sits oddly with dessert. Still, more great work from Alvin in the emotional climax won me back. It wraps up as messy as life.
Dinner is just the warm-up at the New Theatre; down at the Union Café in Union Station, where Mystery Train is staging the charming Troop Train Treachery, it's more of an event. The show is an odd alloy: parts mystery, comedy, history lesson, parlor game, quiz show, and fourth-wall-smashing happening.
You sit at your table, nosh on your bread and chat with actors done up for a 1943 train-ride from Union Station. They'll drop hints about shadowy pasts, and they'll christen you with period names -- I became Machine Gun Brad, and my companion was dubbed Roxy Stiletto, which pleased her so much that she wore the name tag the rest of the night. Somewhere in there, a play breaks out, with the three-actor cast bolstered by participation from select diners who have been given props and scripts. Writer and creator Glendora Davis likens this audience participation to karaoke. She tells me there's a great performance from some untrained patron each night. In the old-Hollywood tradition, her dialogue is thick, alliterative and pun-laden, often a mouthful; still, the amateurs at the show the night I went chewed it right up, with nonsensical accents and emphasis that made clever lines even funnier. Particularly appealing were the quick saves by the pros when an audience member flubbed.
A corpse is found, a course arrives, and we're instructed to assist in the investigation as we eat. Davis spoons endless complications into her story, but she also adds dashes of local history and some near-trenchant observations about a woman's role in yesterday's world. Toby Crawford sputters charismatically as a shady reverend, snagging laughs both in the scripted scenes and with his improvised table chatter. Mary Gay Rogers shoulders the bulk of Davis' complicated plotting but still manages to make her baroque monologues sound offhand.
Unlike Funny Girl, this wraps up smoothly, with the killer caught (no help from me) and awards for the audience actors. We leave laughing, maybe chatting with the folks at other tables. Normally we'd go grab a bite, talk all this over, but -- damn -- we've eaten already (and don't even remember what), so it's off to the bar.
An odd thing when even the good shows drive you to drink.