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Eating Disorders

Mobtown Players' Food-Service Frolic Loses Focus but Delivers Laughs

Service, Please: Angie Pollock waits patiently on Billi Dale and Mich'l Keating.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 2/26/2003

You Have to Serve Somebody

Werner Trieschmann

Eating out is the new theater--or so I read in an essay a while back, which focused on the dining habits of contemporary Americans. No longer is it "dinner and a show;" the dinner is the show. Restaurants have evolved from rooms where food is served to stages for escapism, replete with fabricated atmospheres and waitstaff-cum-players reciting dialogue carefully conceived for them in some distant corporate office tower. "Welcome to T.G.I. McFunfood! I'm Tommy, and I'll be your Funfood Friend for the evening . . . "

Werner Trieschmann's You Have To Serve Somebody plunges theatergoers (uh, the real kind) into this gastronomic circus--well, make that a three-ring circus, as the play presents a trio of new-era eateries. There's Waves of Grain, an "all-American restaurant," a sort of pretentious Cracker Barrel with faux-myth origins and a studied eclectic décor; Taco Circus, a chain Tex-Mex joint where servers are called on to juggle food (literally) while belting out "Happy Birthday"; and the mega-trendy, avant-gourmet Epee, with its illegible menus and indecipherable food. These are ready realms for skewering, and the itinerant Mobtown Players do a slick, rollicking job creating and inhabiting these worlds. And if Trieschmann ultimately bites off more than can be chewed, well, it's not the players' fault.

Act 1 serves up long, laugh-filled glimpses of servers and the served. Hector Hazada (Carlos del Valle) is the taco slave forced to deliver ersatz Mexi meals with names like "Bean There, Ate That" to ditzy, neurotic Sandy Gold (an energetic Leanna Foglia) and her disinterested landlord husband, Harvey (William Caulfield). Could there be anything worse than patrons who change their orders every minute while practicing their high-school Spanish?

In the center ring, 31-year-old Denny Standard (Teresa Altoz) wields menus at Waves of Grain while wondering if she's too old to still be groveling for tips like a teenager. Her customer is the blustery Abeline Hipps (Kathryn Falcone, in a taut, show-stealing performance, complete with Texas drawl and acres of attitude).

Meanwhile, Denny's middle-American, middlebrow parents, Marvin (Michael Keating) and Millie (Billi Dale), stumble into the Epee. They're waited on (make that, ignored) by frazzled hypochondriac and would-be grad student Cassandra Hooper (Angie Pollock doing her best with what's perhaps the show's only overdrawn character). "I don't have a clue what I'm eating!" Millie exclaims at one point--she's not upset, mind you, she's excited. And as the action bounces from table to table, Trieschmann lances modern restaurant culture with a keen ear and a sharp pen.

But the playwright has more on his plate than simple farce, as the subsequent pair of acts reveals. The need to "serve somebody" is metaphorically expanded as the characters' larger-than-lunch dilemmas are revealed (the Golds' dissolving marriage, for example). Ultimately, Trieschmann physically connects the divergent players' lives. In the early going, the connections are made through clever wordplay and some highly theatrical stage-sharing--such as when Hector falling asleep in a Taco Circus booth is overlapped with Cassandra's frantic remembrance of an MRI scan.

By Act 3, the imaginary walls dividing the players (and dividing the served from the servers) have come down, and the play seems to lose steam and freshness a result. Denny's off-duty pursuit of oil painting is clunkily handled. And her "I'm not a waitress, I'm an artist!" stance seems cliché--even if she's given the wacky obsession of only painting human feet. It takes some clever writing to bring these characters to the same table, but the all-together-now ending ultimately seems at odds with the caustic cultural attack with which the play so sharply opens.

Director Ryan Whinnem keeps the action flowing smoothly between the three restaurants and makes effective use of various stage entrances and exit points. And the cast keeps up with the script admirably well. Interestingly, on March 6, the play moves to Company 13's small, oddly shaped Third Floor theater space, whose intimacy will present new challenges for director and cast. The three rings might have to be condensed into one, which could make it a whole new meal altogether.

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