The cheesecake was good and the corn-stuffed peppers were delicious, but the laughing-gas-and-watermelon experience was thrilling. Dinner Theater, conceived as a lecture on the history of food, delivered circa 2500 A.D., is a parade of surprises, not simply dinner with theater (like Teatro ZinZanni), but a clever integration of the two, so that the eating—from the blindfolded course to the Japanese bites that should only be consumed while hearing specific haiku—becomes performance. The audience, by turns amused and confused, sits on stage at a great ring table while our presenter, in his shiny, futuristic tuxedo, stands at a round table in the center, giving us a guided tour through the "history" of culinary traditions (with over a dozen tastings), spanning from 10,000 B.C. to 2464 A.D.
Unfortunately, you can't experience it for yourself. The rest of the performances of Dinner Theater are sold out.
Dinner Theater was written and delivered by Matthew Richter (formerly executive director of Consolidated Works and The Stranger's first theater editor), with significant help from actor Jodi-Paul Wooster (as the assistant), several chefs (including lead culinary Lisa Esposito), and a phalanx of servers in black. In the show's far-off future, environmental disaster and human indifference has caused real food to disappear, replaced by synthetic nutritional globs. At the heart of the show is a (real) quote from the History of Art by H. W. Janson, sung as a religious hymn in beautiful multipart harmony, arranged and recorded by the art-rock band "Awesome": "Perhaps, in the distant future, man will cease to produce works of art/It is not inconceivable that mankind may someday outgrow his need for art/When that happens, the history of art will have come to an end/and our descendents will then be in a position to tell the story of art/a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end/if the problem still interests them." The assumption of Dinner Theater is that the audience is eating and drinking its way through the story of food—a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The audience is led by the servers onto the stage for the first "course," a hand-washing ritual: Participants huddle in groups of five around a single bowl where their hands are sprinkled with water, wine, salt, herbs, and more water, elegantly bringing everyone into the same mood before sitting down for a billion years of weirdness: Dinner Theater is, above all else, an overwhelming barrage of facts, fictions, and tastes. The second course is the Alida Hunting cup, a re-created dish from some imaginary past, built in layers—sturgeon, pomegranate seeds, lentils (hearty), and a hard-boiled quail egg (adorable)—and served in a small votive candle holder. The ingredients have a symbolic value: The sturgeon is strength, the egg, fertility—I think.
The fourth course is about a flavor language devised by the Incas, who would prepare days-long feasts where participants "read" an epic poem by eating it. The word for sunshine is two letters long, Richter explains, the first represented by corn, and the second by a yellow pepper—a yellow pepper stuffed with corn is the representation of the word. The sentence "sunlight pierces the night" is three mouthfuls: the corn-stuffed pepper (fresh and delicious), a spicy chunk of pork impaled on sugar cane (quite good), and a dark hunk of black-bean paste with squid ink and cheese (dry, bland, and not so good). The sentence is served on a plank of wood overlain with a large, rectangular cut of leaf.
The seventh is another taste poem, allegedly devised in Medici-era Italy, about the life and death of a love affair, and is one of the most captivating courses. A couple volunteers from the audience and stands at the center table in front of a series of dishes, each supporting a small tart. We watch the lovers' faces as they eat and Richter details the flavors unfolding in their mouths. They smile at each other during the first tart, which contains all the flavors of first love: spicy heat, sweetness, bitterness, and an element of comfort Richter described as "cheesy" and "vegetal." The second stage has the sweet, the bitter, and the comfortable, but lacks the heat. By the fourth tart, only bitterness remains and the couple, despite their best efforts, looks at each other with pinched, I'm-tasting-something-sour expressions of distaste. The final tart is a dry, empty shell. It is captivating—the couple looks downcast, retires to their seats, and the audience erupts in applause.
Then comes the nitrous oxide, which also requires two volunteers—I happen to be one of them. The act is supposedly a piece of performance art about American savages written by Benjamin Franklin. (Laughing gas was discovered in 1772, but Franklin's "performance-art piece" is a Dinner Theater invention.) We stand near the center table, each with our balloon full of the gas while Richter presides over a whole watermelon, holding a meat cleaver. The process: Richter slices the melon, we inhale the nitrous and bury our faces in the fruit for as long as we feel like it. "You are, of course, invited to do anything you like while inside the watermelon," Richter adds. The nitrous made me giddy and the melon was fresh and sweet, the scent lingering in my sinuses for the rest of the evening.
The twelfth course describes catastrophic plant extinctions—sometime in the future—when bioengineering and a loss of biodiversity have rendered all plant life more vulnerable to parasites and blights. In homage to the vanished flora, that course has no tasting, but offers a funny line about science trying to engineer "a cod that secretes its own batter." There is a futurist course: eight cubes of bread consumed in succession, one with a surprise bomb of excruciatingly hot pepper. The final course involves drinking liqueur and an apple seed from a test tube.
The second act is a dinner party, where the audience makes its own fun and our presenters are more scarce. At our end of the table: An aborted food fight, involving a cream puff thrown by a woman in a black dress onto the sleeve of a man in a blue shirt. Bottles of wine shared liberally with strangers. A hideous slow-motion projection of a woman's mouth, chewing gum, which had to be studiously ignored in order to keep enjoying the otherwise-enjoyable meal of Spanish tortilla, paella, olives, and sautéed mushrooms.
Throughout the evening, Richter and Wooster talk to us about art and ideas—the correlation between the rise of restaurants and the rise of museums, the deleterious effect of each coming to dominate art and eating with an "institutional mainstream," how artificial apple flavoring replaces the flavor of actual apples and how, in the future, when actual apples go extinct, nobody notices.
The ideas are strong but there are a few train wrecks in the execution—the fact that the audience is in the future, after the extinction of food, isn't explained until well into the first act. The food is always innovative, but sometimes suffers from the logistical problems of serving many people many courses on a tight timeline. The performances are stuttering, with flubbed lines and an unnecessarily presentational affect for what is supposed to be a lecture.
These problems are easily solved with a little polishing—the show has huge potential. The idea is literally fantastic and, by the end, we are fully incorporated into its fantasy. Like all good science fiction, Dinner Theater takes a current problem and logically extends it into a future extreme: We are at a clashing junction between science and food and culture, unsure where one begins and the other ends.
Bethany Jean Clement contributed to this story.