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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
Dinner With Demons

You learn so much about yourself cooking -- and you avoid writing.
--- Jonathan Reynolds who has solved his "avoidance" problem by writing a memoir that allows him to cook on stage.
Jonathan Reynolds
Jonathan Reynolds with his deep fried turkey
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The Off-Broadway season has seen a flurry of shows in which dialogue is delivered while dicing, slicing or serving food. If this continues, a degree from the Culinary Institute is likely to be as useful for an actor as one from the Yale Drama School. Of the plays falling within this particular type of "dinner theater" Dinner With Demons is the first whose author and sole performer is an accomplished cook who, besides authoring plays like Stonewall Jackson's House (see link below), writes a food column for the New York Times Magazine.

Reynolds, a genial sixty-ish man in sneakers and a blue shirt and slacks covered by an apron, is an endearing host. As part of his showy kitchen caper he lowers a 14-pound turkey into a specially constructed frier of sizzling oil (Not to worry-- there are enough fire extinguishers at the ready to "put out Donald Trump's hair"). While waiting to triumphantly retrieve the perfectly crisped bird, he tosses off a spicy tomato soufflé and a giant apple pancake enriched with "half the butter in Denmark and sweetened with all of Cuba's sugar" which will jog older viewers' memories of Reuben's Restaurant where these confections were a specialty.

Essentially Dinner With Demons is a memoir and the framework for the coup-de-kitchen shenanigans is that the dinner being prepared is for the people (all of whom are dead) who represented the delights and "demons" of Reynolds' rebellious growing up as a child of divorce and privilege (upper East Side, boarding schools): A controlling and depressed mother (nicknamed "The Warden") who was big on diclipline and indifferent to food and an absent and womanizing father. The parental failure to provide emotional sustenance was compensated for somewhat by his relationship with his movie star cousin, the late Lee Remick (for whom he still grieves) and the debonair Uncle Buck who introduced him to the joys of food, Elvis and jazz.

All this isn't as clever and full-fledged a play as Stonewall Jackson's House and Reynolds, whose activities haven't extended to acting, does occasionally fumble his lines. Still, Peter Askin, who also directed Trumbo (another and more substantial solo show currently entrenched in a nearby theater-- see link) has seen to it that the ninety minutes move without mishap to the well coordinated conclusion of anecdotes and dinner preparation. Any complaints about gimmickry are likely to evaporate as you give yourself over to the seductive aromas of onions being sauteed in butter ("Smell #6" according to our host), the sizzling turkey and eventually that sugar-y pancake. Speaking of seduction, comments on the romance of cooking for someone of the opposite sex include a list of tips for cook-and-seduce success (Don't use a cookbook which will be wasted on non-cooking New Yorkers whose refrigerators are filled mostly with take-out menus.

Besides Mr. Reynolds' cooking credentials to set Dinner With Demons apart from other food focused shows, it's also the most elegantly staged example of this genre -- as might be expected since set designer Heidi Ettinger was the chief advocate for the Second Stage to produce it. Having won her case, she's created a set that is a star in its own right. The wide stage is flanked by two colorful cornucopias of fruits, vegetables and breads, with a floor to ceiling backdrop of spice jar filled glass shelves and overhanging the work area there's thousands of dollars worth of shiny copper utensils (courtesy of All-Clad Metalcrafters). Besides the already mentioned custom-made turkey frier, there's an orange and steel double oven (another name brand product placement) to bake the pancake and a bright green refrigerator in which to chill the soufflé. Ettinger's fellow designers, Kevin Adams (lights) and John Gromada (sound), add to the haute cuisine flavor of the production values.

I can't conclude with a " bon appetit," or tell you if that turkey tastes as good as it looks or that the tomato soufflé is better than crême boule since this isn't an audience participation show. If you're looking for something to eat check out The Cook which serves appetizers or The Last Supper which serves a post-play meal (see the end of the production notes below). As for the food left in Ms. Ettinger's gourmet's dream kitchen, I hope the folks at Second Stage work out an arrangement to switch from frivolously throwing out the leftovers (as reported in the New York Times) to donating them to a charity instead.

Can Dinner With Demons pass the test as an honest-to-goodness play? To evaluate it as a theater rather than a performance piece, you'd have to run through Reynolds' memoir with just a few simple props instead of all its culinary bells and whistles. My feeling is that, per the quote at the top of this page, Reynolds is still cooking to avoid writing a more nourishing play.

For a review of the 1997 production of Jonathan Reynolds' Stonewall Jackson's House which dished up good dialogue but no food go here. For a review of the Peter Askin directed Trumbo go here.

Dinner with Demons
Written and performed by Jonathan Reynolds
Directed by Peter Askin
Set Design: Heidi Ettinger
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design: John Gromada
Running time: 90 Minutes without intermission
Second Stage, 307 W. 43rd St., 212-246-4422
11/25/03 to 1/18/04; opening 12/16/03.
Tue at 7pm; Wed - Sat at 8pm; Wed & Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm
Tickets: $36 to $55.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 11 press performance

Links to reviews of other of the season's other food focused plays
The Cook -- This is a real play by Eduardo Machado that traces the Cuban revolution (from Battista's expulsion to the present) through the lives of a gifted cook and her husband. The revolution's effect on Gladys and Carlos is seen from the vantage point of a well equipped and actively used kitchen. By the end of the first act, the theater is permeated with the rich aromas of the dishes being prepared. The audience doesn't get to eat any of the food prepared as part of the play but appetizers (fried plantains) are passed around by some of the actors (you don't realize they're cast members until the play begins) in the lobby and as you take your seat. This is the most substantial of the season's food-themed fare.

The Last Supper-- The one food show that includes a cheese and drinks intermission and culminates in a full-course dinner. It's not as haute cuisine as Reynolds' concoctions but its nourish and sitting down with the playwright-host-producer and thirty guests (this is truly an intimate experience) makes for one of the most fun and unusual evenings to be had.

Omnium Gatherum -- This collaborative work by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros took place around a dinner party which assembled a group of Manhattan litterati to consume an haute cuisine menu. Basically an attempt to deal with the 9/11 disaster, this dinner party from hell proved to be a box office disaster. It's doubtful that treating the audience to at least some nibbles would have kept this show from going to an early grave.

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