Plays about food come with a sadistic quality. Hearing actors extol the taste sensations of delicious dishes can offer the audience an exercise in frustration. If the notorious rule of lap dances says, "You can look but not touch," then in food plays you can't even look because the lovingly described edibles almost never appear onstage.
Of two current food-based plays, The Poetry of Pizza at least gives you a chance to slake your appetite. Theatre in the Square's next-door neighbor, the Marietta Pizza Co., put specialty pies on its menu based on the recipes described in Deborah Brevoort's romantic comedy. Blood Type: RAGU at 14th Street Playhouse could use some kind of Meals on Wheels delivery to accompany Frank Ingrasciotta's one-man show about growing up in a well-fed Sicilian-American household. (ART Station's musical comedy Five Course Love, playing through May 10, evokes food by taking place at five restaurants.)
Poetry and RAGU affirm the adage that the shortcut to people's hearts is through their stomachs. Pizza provides an unlikely fuel for romance in Poetry while classic Italian cooking provides the filling of the family experience in RAGU. For all the tomato sauce and garlic running in the plays' veins, neither proves completely satisfying as a well-balanced meal.
The Poetry of Pizza shows some slight similarities to the 2000 film Chocolat, only instead of a chocolate shop, a pizzeria rekindles passions in a Danish neighborhood. When bookish professor Sarah (Agnes Lucinda Harty), embarks on a Copenhagen exchange program, her brassy best pal (Marcie Millard) says, "Try to get a little sex when you're there – it's Denmark, for God's sake!" which suggests the play's level of comedic subtlety.
In Copenhagen, Sarah encounters such unwelcome suitors as a goofy retiree (Scott DePoy) and a tall, suave professor (Robin Bloodworth, whose accent sounds amusingly like Arnold Schwarzenegger). Sarah falls for Soran (David Kronawitter), a Kurdish refugee and baker who pours his longing into his (unseen) pizzas, which increasingly resemble works of erotic art.
Directed by Jessica Phelps West, The Poetry of Pizza's first act ends with Sarah and Soran on a tender, heartwarming date scene. First Soran reveals his tragic history, culminating with him walking on foot from Iraq to Denmark. Then the scene takes a sensual turn as the lovers face the audience and mime feeding each other figs and other delicacies, while the physical pleasure practically radiates from their faces. I'll have what they're having.
It's a shame that such stupid material surrounds such a great, sexy sequence. Poetry relies on silly plot contrivances and smaller-than-life characterizations, although the talented cast goes a long way to compensate for the flimsy script. Karen Howell proves extremely game as a middle-aged shut-in who becomes increasingly hot and bothered in the presence of pizza boxes. Overall the thin-crust material can't support the two-and-a-half hour running time, and you wish that Poetry had a Domino's-style pledge to deliver satisfaction in 120 minutes or less.
Early in Blood Type: RAGU, writer/performer Frank Ingrasciotta says, "Food preparation is my umbilical cord to my cultural past," and he puckishly compares the meals of his Brooklyn childhood to a religious service, with pasta as "liturgy." His mother's Italian comfort food not only becomes synonymous with maternal love, it serves as a kind of bribe to win her children's loyalty against their father when the marriage takes a difficult turn.
Ingrasciotta makes vivid personalities of his parents and family members, dropping funny details like his father's "Sicilian 'Someone-has-wronged-me' radar." RAGU's most engaging scenes capture his culture shock on visiting his family's Sicilian home village as both a child and an adult. Ingrasciotta frequently performed the monologue play in New York and New Jersey before Atlanta's fledgling Metropolis Port Theatre Co. brought the show to the 14th Street Playhouse. Perhaps Ingrasciotta is used to larger venues, because his nimble performance seems a little broad for the playhouse's tiny, black-box third space.
Ironically, Ingrasciotta turns out to be RAGU's most underwritten role as he grows to adulthood. When he comes of age, he alludes to difficulties with women and his "shame" without illustrating why his upbringing caused him so many problems. His self-pity seems underdeveloped, although his near-farcical story about visiting a Nevada brothel sounds so unlikely, it rings true in spite of itself. RAGU's emphasis on funny anecdotes ultimately obscures its darker implications.
The Poetry of Pizza and Blood Type: RAGU both caution its protagonists against thinking too much. RAGU encourages embracing one's heritage rather than obsessing over it, while Poetry comes down too firmly against book-learning over earthly delights, as if thinking and eating have to be mutually exclusive. The Poetry of Pizza and Blood Type: RAGU arguably work best as theatrical desserts, and don't quite give you enough to sink your teeth into.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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