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At These High-End Dinner Theaters, Classics Come With Crudités

At These High-End Dinner Theaters, Classics Come With Crudités

Monday, 12 August, 2019 - 06:30
Victoria Rae Sook, left, and Charles Osborne in “Midsummer: A Banquet,” a dinner-theater take on Shakespeare. Credit Credit Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times
New York - Alex Alexis Soloski
The road of excess, William Blake believed, leads to the palace of wisdom. Or possibly to a plate of CBD-infused doughnuts with a chocolate dipping sauce, then an aerial pas de deux.

Earlier this summer I visited two high-end dinner theater productions, “The Devouring: A Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and “Midsummer: A Banquet.” Dinner and theater don’t necessarily go together: Fine dining is already performative, and good theater is satiating. Why complicate either? The idea of a “culinary theater,” an art that feeds our baser senses and fails to engage our intellect, made Bertolt Brecht apoplectic. Then again, he probably never tried the welcome cocktail at “The Devouring.”

In “Midsummer,” Third Rail Projects, an immersive theater outfit, and Food of Love Productions, a company that makes a picnic of pentameter, want you to follow Shakespeare’s young lovers into the Athenian woods. But they don’t want you to go in hungry. Or do they?

When you arrive at Café Fae, in an art nouveau space I remember as having been a brunch spot and a clothing store, a cast member clad in jodhpurs leads you to your table and presents you with various appetizers — crudités, spreads, a few cold cuts, a bag of bread rolls. (The plating leans toward Mason jars and gingham. Athens: so homespun.)

Then the comedy begins, with awkward stops for more snacks, like the Forest Picnic, a peculiar riff on a grain bowl, and the Love Bundle, a few cherries and a peach so hard I struggled to slice it. Which shrewd and knavish sprites devised the Faerie Kebabs, each one a toothpick jammed into an olive, a mushroom and a dried apricot? Are they sorry?

If this is an improvement over the feast that the “Midsummer” character Bottom requests — oats, hay, dried peas (does this explain the grain bowl?) — the repast isn’t especially delicious. And, as the old joke goes, there was so little of it. Especially when a ticket will run you $150. The food mostly distracts from the experience rather than enhancing it. It’s difficult to have your Shakespeare and eat it, too.

About that Shakespeare. Directed and choreographed by Zach Morris, with more attention to movement than words, this “Midsummer” makes nifty use of the space. The eight energetic actors — double- and triple-cast, while also serving your Love Bundles and refilling your water — deserve more. Tip Puck on your way out.

Swankier, sexier, altogether more succulent, “The Devouring” is inspired — in a manner as loose and flimsy as a negligee — by one of Blake’s illuminated books, an allegorical exploration of good and evil. It occupies the Paradise Club, a purpose-built lounge on the seventh floor of a Times Square hotel. Twin murals, in the style of Hieronymus Bosch, adorn the room, while a scarlet sunburst sparkles overhead. Because why not contemplate eschatology while you enjoy oysters on a bed of chilled rock salt and seared duck breast with an apricot foie gras coulis?

After the savories, angels and demons descend in a nightclub act created by Anya Sapozhnikova, the creative director of the hot spot House of Yes in Brooklyn, and Matthew Dailey. The show, hosted by a serpentine Nik Alexander, includes sword-swallowing, break dancing, umbrella-juggling and libidinal aerial acts, mostly expert. The performers break for dessert, then they writhe some more and repurpose Nine Inch Nails’s “Closer” as a lullaby. When the show ends, the dance party begins.

There is something grotesque about “The Devouring” in the way that a lot of luxury is grotesque if you really think about it. (The preshow dinner begins at 8 p.m. and lasts an hour and a half, so there is a lot of time to think.) If “Midsummer” offers too little in the way of decadence, “The Devouring” provides much too much. Then it brings you a candied egg and a mallet to smash it with. The egg disgorges chocolate pearls.

The menu will change on Aug. 15, to more closely mirror the show’s themes. But let’s talk about one current dish: Caviar Nachos, potato chips heaped with three kinds of roe and crème fraîche. It’s the sleaziest thing I have ever eaten, and it’s delicious. That’s “The Devouring” in a goblet: a hedonic overload that skims the ludicrous.

I kind of loved it (the athleticism, the impenitent extravagance, the yuzu soda that our server, solicitous to the point of perversity, handed me) and kind of hated it (the waste, the hypersexuality, the audience members in tight dresses and tighter shirts lofting iPhone cameras). But it’s like Blake said: Love and hate are necessary to human existence. He didn’t mention nachos. At $195 per person, “The Devouring” isn’t cheap, but compared with a lot of Broadway — does “Dear Evan Hansen” beguile you with asparagus in ramp butter? — it is nearly a bargain.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend devouring “The Devouring” the way I did, mostly sober and with my mother. Still, it had the feel of something delirious, fantastic, extraordinary. Paradise? Not quite. A midsummer night’s dream? Definitely.

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