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A CurtainUp Review
Dinner With Demons
By Elyse Sommer
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.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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