Staged Feeding
A new theatrical series has a lot on its plate.
by Sharyn Jackson

ENTRÉE ACT Chef Alevras discusses his menu at March’s Eating Our Words
Photograph: Marlo Hunter.

Most of us dread watching someone make a scene in a restaurant. But that’s precisely what happens in Eating Their Words, a new series that blends fine dining and first-rate drama. Don’t call it dinner theater, though—there’s no overboiled ham on the stage (or the menu, for that matter): The latest installment, Monday 16 at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Peacock Alley, sees new works by emerging playwrights David Grimm (Steve & Idi), Annie Baker (Body Awareness) and Keith Reddin (The Missionary Position) paired with a unique menu crafted by hot-stuff chef Cedric Tovar. His three courses—appetizer, entrée and dessert—will make cameos in the 20-minute playlets, which are performed at the table just before the food is served.

Finding the right link between theater and cuisine was essential to ETW producer Marlo Hunter, 31, a director who works frequently with Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Youngblood. “The two things I love most are directing new work and eating amazing food. The mechanics of what goes into creating a meal is the equivalent of putting on a show,” Hunter says. “And so many things [besides] the food affect your senses—the ambience, the lighting, the way the waiters look. I was interested in seeing whether the two [kinds of] artists I most revere, playwrights and chefs, speak the same language.”

It appears they do. The first Eating Their Words was held in March at the Tasting Room, where chef Colin Alevras created a menu inspired by scenes from Theresa Rebeck (Mauritius), Sam Forman (The Grille Room) and Amy Herzog (Christmas Present). In Herzog’s vignette, First Supper, a Waspy mother interrogated her daughter’s lower-class beau while they wait for the rest of their party to arrive. “The boyfriend ate venison because it was roadkill—like him,” recalls Hunter, “as opposed to the mother, who had oysters—appealing, yet grimy and tough to swallow.” After the scene, Alevras served family-style appetizers, including braised Scottish red deer and pickled Kumamoto oysters with crème fraîche, to about 30 guests, who sat interspersed with the talent. “Everyone was only an arm’s distance from the actors,” says Hunter. “It was like a conversation was happening at the next table—and you were allowed to look.”

Eating Their Words’ Marlo Hunter
Photograph: Bronwen Gilbert
For each three-part production, Hunter, the chef and the playwrights start planning the menu and plots some eight weeks in advance. “We discuss the journey of the meal,” Hunter explains. “What does the appetizer mean—is it a tease? Is it a dare?” Together the group comes up with a theme—for Monday’s event, it’s “Time and Food”—and when the scripts are completed, the chef creates a meal based on the various story lines. (The motif for July’s event—featuring new works by Neil LaBute, Brooke Berman and Steven Levenson—is still being finalized.)

Grimm’s work, The Appetizer, is up first at the Waldorf. It involves a tipsy woman, played by Becky Ann Baker (the mom on Freaks and Geeks), who becomes annoyed with her dining companion (Broadway vet Henry Stram) while waiting for her meal to arrive. “Food might end up being thrown,” Grimm teases. “I’m one of those people who, in a situation requiring a certain level of decorum, will always try to undermine it. Doing an event at the Waldorf, I’m thinking, You’ve got to have a food fight and…[maybe] some sexual activity under the table.” To match Grimm’s intent, Tovar says he’s considering serving shellfish. “Something raw—nice live scallops or shrimp, very small and delicate, and also nice colors.”

But did Grimm—who previously penned Kit Marlowe and Measure for Pleasure—ever think he’d write for dinner theater? “I guess that’s what this boils down to,” he says, laughing. “Dinner theater has this horrible connotation, but when you work in theater, you can’t get too grand. It’s as much about entertainment as anything else. Besides, it’s not like doing Ruddigore in Secaucus over a buffet—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Just count me out.”