A New Role For the Tasting Room
February 27, 2008

The phrase "dinner theater" makes director Marlo Hunter a little nervous. Of course, Ms. Hunter's project, "Eating Their Words," could be described, at first glance, as such an endeavor. After all, it's dinner and theater—in the same room, at the same time. It's the details, then, that set apart Ms. Hunter's project, a three-act, five-course event born of chef-playwright collaboration; with a Broadway playwright, Theresa Rebeck, a celebrated chef, Colin Alevras, and Tony Award-winning actor, Frank Wood, involved, "Eating Their Words" is a far cry from "somebody doing 'Camelot' while you eat rubber chicken," as Ms. Rebeck put it.

On March 4, Ms. Hunter will introduce the inaugural production of "Eating Their Words" at the Tasting Room, a new American café in SoHo. The evening will consist of three plays, each of which incorporates a course also being served to the restaurant's patrons. The plays will be linked only in that the characters in each work will have dined on the same food. The play that features the dessert course, for example, will involve an argument surrounding one character's refusal, on the grounds of her commitment to the South Beach Diet, to order a rich chocolate dessert, despite having devoured foie gras in the appetizer course.

Ms. Hunter, 30, who studied drama at Princeton University, has worked at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and considers herself a "very, very talented eater," wanted to explore the intersection between theatrical performance and the choreographed production of restaurant service. "Eating a meal is an inherently theatrical endeavor," she said. "Everything that goes into making a meal seamless is very similar in terms of the mechanics of a performance."

Ms. Hunter used her theatrical ties to secure the participation of three playwrights—Rebeck, whose work "Mauritius" was staged last year at the Manhattan Theatre Club, and Sam Forman and Amy Herzog, both of whom worked with Ms. Hunter at Ensemble Studio Theater—to write 20-minute works each. Nailing down a restaurant, however, proved more of a challenge. The project required both a space that could accommodate a production and a chef flexible enough to work with ideas pitched by all three playwrights. "I love being on Chowhound and all of those foodie Web sites," she said, referring to the food-centric Web site, "so I started doing research on chefs in the city who are known to be creative."

Ms. Hunter eventually found a match in the Tasting Room and its chef, Mr. Alevras, who has a penchant for culinary experimentation and for collaboration. To date, that collaboration has been with local farmers and produce vendors, rather than playwrights. Plus, his wife, Renée, the restaurant's co-owner, had previously worked in theater. The pair jumped at the chance. "I liked the idea of making something where the food is significant and not just something else to do while you're watching," Mr. Alevras said. "It's the restaurant as a character."

Mr. Alevras met with the playwrights to integrate his menu into their narratives. Mr. Forman's play, for example, called for a scene in which a woman orders an ostentatious meal with her new boyfriend in an attempt to impress her ex-boyfriend, a waiter at the restaurant. Mr. Alevras hadn't yet nailed down the course's exact composition, but described it as "a pheasant thing." "It's sort of luxurious and slightly unusual and really yummy," he said.

Ms. Hunter is in talks to stage the concept at other restaurants and with various playwrights in upcoming months, though convincing chefs and restaurant owners to devote space and time to a dinner theater project isn't always easy. But to some chefs, such as Mr. Alevras, dinner at a restaurant is always dinner theater. "We see everything from engagements to breakups to people walking out on dates," he said. "We get to see plenty of drama—on purpose or otherwise."