I’ve always been interested in the subterranean meanings of food — the emotional significance we attach to what we eat, the paradox that living creatures die to nourish us, our instinctual fear of new foods (because they can kill us) — balanced against the fact that, as omnivores, we’ve evolved to seek new tastes. Most interesting is the constant balance between deliciousness and decay: life and death, so to speak. Think bleu cheese, aged beef, fish sauce, pickles, sourdough bread.
The courses served at the meal in the center of Moira Buffini’s savagely brilliant comedy Dinner, now receiving a regional premiere at the Edge Theater, evoke all these ideas. The starter, which hostess Paige describes as “primordial soup,” is made of onion, celeriac and parsnip, along with live algae. It creates oxygen, Paige says: If you left it on Mars for a billion years and then traveled there, “You’d find you were stepping into a new Eden.
This soup is an irrepressible force of nature.” The soup is followed by live lobsters, served under silver covers; each guest faces the dilemma of either tossing the creature into boiling water or saving it. Then comes the dessert, which comprises the contents of Paige’s trash can, sugared and frozen.
The dinner is being given in honor of Paige’s husband, Lars, who has just published a popular philosophy book that says contemporary life is “a psychological apocalypse” and encourages readers to honor their own potency and desires. In addition to Lars and vampiric Paige, art and science are represented at the table. Vegetarian Wynne, representing art, of course releases her lobster into the fog-shrouded pond in the garden; Wynne’s politician husband has just left her because she showed a painting of his genitals in her latest exhibit. The scientist is microbiologist Hal, who deserted a suicidal wife in favor of a new one, Sian, a coolly disengaged television news announcer. The working class erupts into this group of “rich cunts,” as newcomer Mike, a young war veteran, calls them. Mike is either a straight-up delivery man or an unrepentant thief. Finally, there’s the waiter, a silent, hovering presence throughout the evening, bringing on food and replenishing glasses, until he speaks his first and only words: “I’m here.” There’s a hint at this waiter’s identity when Paige says she found him on the Internet, where his website motto was “Let me hold your coat and snicker” — a reference to T. S. Eliot’s “I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat, and snicker/And in short, I was afraid.”
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If the dishes haven’t already tipped you off that, despite the surface realism, there’s something surreal going on, you know it now. And several more references to horror, evil and the supernatural follow: Stephen King is mentioned; Lars mocks his wife as a graduate of the Cruella de Vil charm school. When Sian reels off a long list of murder weapons, a list that becomes more sinister by the minute, husband Hal interjects “ducking school,” that medieval device for unmasking witches. “It’s my creation,” Paige says of her ghastly dinner, “like Frankenstein’s monster.”
I’ve seen a lot of let’s-tear-each-other-to-pieces plays, including Yasmina Reza’s hilarious God of Carnage, but I’ve never seen one this skin-strippingly nasty or verbally exhilarating. And there’s no stated reason for all the loathing. No one’s tormented by sexual or professional jealousy or, as in Carnage, re-litigating a playground fight between two children. The rage here is existential. And at the center is that beautifully set table, complete with glassware and those shining, silver-domed platters.
Scott Bellot’s direction is astute, right down to Kenny Storms’s itchy, unsettling between-scenes music, and the cast is uniformly strong. Carol Bloom slithers successfully through the evening as Paige, Samara Bridwell is a nicely nasty Sian, and Emily Tuckman’s Wynne adds a refreshing flyaway energy. The men are less overtly vicious, though when Jack Wefso’s rather ebulliant Hal suddenly tosses the shudder-inducing virus “weaponized marburg” onto his wife’s death-weapon list, we have to wonder just what his scientific work entails. Verl Hite makes for a weary, cynical Lars, and Sean Michael Cummings a cheerfully amoral Mike. As for Ronan Viard’s waiter, you know that the clue to this entire mystery lies in his impassive face and controlled demeanor.
Dinner, presented by Edge Theater through September 17, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, 303-232-0363, theedgetheater.com.