By Anne E. Johnson
If music be the food of love, then perhaps theater is nutrition for the soul. New York’s WorkShop Theater, under the artistic direction of Thomas Coté, has laid out a buffet of six short plays related to food.
À LA CARTE: A FEAST OF NEW PLAYS at the WorkShop Theater
312 West 36th Street, Fourth Floor East, New York, NY 10018
(between 8th and 9th Avenues, on the south/downtown side of the street, a.k.a The Theatre Building)
I asked the playwrights and director to share their secret ingredients in this platter of
“Food is woven into our childhoods, holidays, romances, tragedies, religions,” said artistic associate and project dramaturg Laura Hirschberg, who is also one of the playwrights. “It’s a great jumping-off point for writers to work with.”
Director Leslie Kincaid Burby took the theme of food deeply to heart as she approached this project. “I think that food and nourishment, both physical and emotional, are such profound elements in our lives,” she said. “I looked for every opportunity I could to actually use real food and drink on stage, and let the audience vicariously enjoy it along with the actors.”
The theme affected her approach to the production’s visual elements, too. “I tried to find set items which would draw audience members back to their own memories of childhood foods and favorite meals. I worked closely with the Duane Pagano, our set designer, to try to bring as many kitchen and cooking related elements into the set as possible. I am ultimately really delighted with the playful look of the show.”
Burby tried to bring a sense of unity to the six plays. “My approach was first and foremost to honor the writing style of each piece, and help the actors to make strong acting choices as they helped to develop this new material. I hope that the pieces do have an in-common feel, even though they are extremely diverse.”
A glance at the six works highlights this diversity:
The collection begins with The Cook and the Soldier by Allan Knee. Molly is a 16-year-old high schooler and part-time belly dancer who yearns to be a cook for the rock group Pussy Riot. At NYC’s Port Authority Bus Terminal she encounters Tom, an emotionally damaged soldier who has gone AWOL. As their relationship develops, both grow up and face the reality of their lives. Knee was not available for comment here, but in a short video he describes the piece as a “coming of age” story for two characters who are “both in kind of a disturbed state.”
Playwright Scott C. Sickles said he didn’t expect to come up with anything to match the food theme. He only found the idea for his play, Popcorn, when considering what he most liked to eat. “I’m basically a popcorn addict,” he said. “The idea of these two young guys, Stan and Kip, getting involved in some teenage sexual exploration, with all the anxiety and hormones, supported the metaphor of a food that was prepared by heating it until it explodes and ricochets.”
Sickles’ play also deals with the words gays use to describe themselves, and whether those words are perceived as hurtful. “During the course of the play,” he said, “Stan, joking and utterly without malice, calls the other boy, Kip, a fag. Kip takes offense and the drama is off and running. Providing counterpoint to their conflict is an episode of Nigella Lawson’s cooking show. There’s really no one – on TV at least – who bridges food and sex the way she does. Ultimately, the food in the play is a metaphor for a very personal struggle about identity.”
In contrast to Sickles, Dana Leslie Goldstein, author of Eat Dessert First, found herself with too many ideas. “But there was one image that kept coming back to me. It was a cookbook, filled with scribbled messages from a recently deceased mother to her estranged daughter. A daughter who harbors more resentment than compassion for her mother’s choices. Gradually, however, as the daughter packs up her late mother’s cooking tools and other possessions, she begins to remember what her mother’s food was really like: it was filled with both love and disappointment, hurt and care.”
Goldstein had a personal stake in this story. “As both a mother and a daughter myself, I wanted to use food to write about parenting, about nurturing, about hunger and satisfaction. As the mother in Eat Dessert First says, our children ‘eat what we feed them. They have to, to survive. They eat our fears. They eat our dreams. They eat our absence. And eventually they’re made up of all those things. That we fed them.’”
Gary Giovannetti’s play, Palate Cleanser, is a comedy with biblical roots. Jesus’s miracle of the loaves and fishes comes under criticism from Yelp reviewers.
“Yes, the loaves and fishes have a deeper meaning,” said Giovanetti. “Imagine a world in which the divine Jesus walks and breathes as a human being, yet is subject to the hyper-critical sniping of current social media. So it’s not just about life-sustaining food. It’s about the poison being served up daily in our current connected environment, which is the opposite of life-sustaining.
“With the overwhelming prevalence of social media, everyone has an opinion and everyone is all too willing to share it. What can happen in a forum without gatekeepers, though, (such as social media) is that everyone’s opinion is greeted equally in the marketplace of ideas. Even if those ideas are discredited or demonstrably false.”
For her play Fish Food, Laura Hirschberg turned the issue of food inside out, so to speak. A man wakes up to find himself inside a whale with a strange woman, and he wants to get out.
“My mind landed on the notion of being food,” she said, “the one who is eaten rather than the one who eats. In the case of one of my characters, the apparent doom of being eaten may be the only thing that can save him. The act of eating is an act of transformation–turning food into energy–and transformation can be very tempting. A clean slate, an escape, a chance to leave things behind.
“In the belly of the beast, that temptation is very real, very present, and the character has very little time to decide whether this particular brand of transformation is the right thing for him. He has a bit more agency than the average entree, but it’s a difficult test he needs to pass nonetheless.”
The final play of the sextet is The Incredible Egg by Laurie Graff. “I always like to write a play to submit for consideration, whatever the theme,” Graff said, “because being part of the WorkShop Theater Company’s one-act festivals is a wonderful honor and opportunity.” The concept for her piece came to her when work for a PR client exposed her to an unusual theory, “that using egg whites as a lubricant could help a woman to get pregnant.” She built a play around that idea.
Her two main characters do not agree about applying this fertility method. “The play spins off into conflicts, not just about marriage, equality, and male/female roles, but the food, the egg itself: is it GMO, a pasteurized egg, gluten-free, good for a vegetarian… a vegan? The egg and the hope of conception is the event of the play, but the craziness of modern life is what creates the conflicts and the fun.”
Food means something different to each of us. What we all have in common is that we can’t live without food. And in that way, at least, food is very much like theater.
À LA CARTE: A FEAST OF NEW PLAYS runs through May 2. Get tickets here.