"To the audience: You are about to spend an hour and a half in intimate contact with people who talk, cook and eat food. Not to eat before the performance, or at least to have a snack, is to risk agony."
This notice does not appear in the program of "The Art of Dining." Tina Howe's new play at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. But it should. Actors have eaten -- even cooked or served food -- on stage before. But never so much, nor so continuously.
The care and feeding of seven customers by the husband-and-wife team that owns the Golden Carousel restaurant is in the hands of master propertyman Larry Barrett. Howe wasn't concerned with the problems of bringing a restaurant to life on stage because, she said, "I think people in the theater can do anything."
Barrett wasn't so sure: "When they told me about this," he said during a rehearsal break this week, "I began thinking about Bermuda for the winter.
"This job takes 2 1/2 hours before each performance. It's just like opening a restaurant. Two of my men handle the dining room. It's a class place where the owners really care, so they have to set places, give the napkins a special fold and spit-shine the glasses."
The food, he said, "has to be prepared before curtain, and if there are lumps in the soup, I get a note on it. If the bread is dry, I get a note on it."
If barrett sounds like a harassed chef, he should. His "menu" includes cream of mussel and oxtail soups, veal Prince Orloff, roast duck, poached bass, watercress salad and a quartet of desserts. After three days of 8 a.m.-to-midnight rehearsals prior to opening, he was wearing an apron and talking about "my kitchen."
But the props themselves are as great a potential nightmare as the cooking. It would be difficult to envision a kitchen surpassing the one created by set designer David Jenkins and director A. J. Antoon in clutter or eclectic content. "I haven't counted the props," said assistant stage manager John Masterman, "but there must be two million."
Masterman, who handled props and cooking during the play's inaugural run at the Public Theatre of the New York Shakespeare Festival, is regarded by the off-stage crew as the real hero of "The Art of Dining."
"On his own time he compiled this to help me out," said Barrett, thrusting forward a loose-leaf booklet of more than 50 pages. It contains a grocery list that runs to two full pages, a long set of recipe directions, and photographs of all the table-tops and shelves to supplement lists of their contents. Among the considerations it addresses are:
Food. Sixty percent is delivered by a wholesaler each Monday and Friday. The rest, including perishable items such as eggs and cream, is purchased at a supermarket in the nearby Watergate complex.
Water. A wonderfully battered sink conducts running water into a 10-gallon drum that must be emptied after each performance.
Prop placement. One small example. The directions for "Center Table: Cutting board" list seven items, including onions (whole, halved and chopped), a box of mushrooms and two knives. These must be in place before each performance.
"The Art of Dining" is, after all, theater, so not everything is quite what it seems. In this production, for example, the part of the stripped bass is being played by a bluefish, a succession of bluefish actually. A quick glance at the "recipe" for floating island revealed the following ingredients: "3 cups applesauce and 1 cup plain yogurt. Yellow food color."
The actress who does the on-stage cooking is Suzanne Collins. Her impressive self-confidence is all project. "I cook (in real life)" she said, "but I don't really cook. So I asked the producer to let me attend a class at Macy's conducted by Simone Beck (of "Simca's Cuisine" and co-author with Julia Child of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking.)
"She was very serious and concentrated. She made mistakes. I realized that they all do. But it didn't matter. She just went on with it. She was so unafraid."
As a cook, Collins does well. Only her technique with the pastry bag leaves something to be desired. ("Pressure from the top hand, guide with the bottom hand," the ballet master at Le Cordon Bleu used to say.) Two other failings aren't her fault. One work table is too low and surely would cause a chef nagging back pains. "I know," said director Antoon. "It's a question of sight lines." The second is the positively sissy hand-mixed she employs. No woman of her determination and social class would cook seriously these days, much less open a restaurant, without a KitchenAid mixer at her side.
For Antoon, the only real-life cooking buff involved in the production, "This is the kitchen I would love to own." A strong advocate of detail and authenticity, he took an active part in equipping and stocking it.
Tina Howe's attraction was different. "People have a consuming interest in food and in eating out at this particular time," she began, "so I thought it might be of interest to explore the rituals of dining."
Howe herself said she cooks "only under duress" and "doesn't have the money to seek out restaurants like this one." As she conceived the Golden Carousel, it was to be small, run by pefectionists and feature classic French cuisine.
'A part of me didn't want to seek out such a place," she said. "I believe that if you are writing a play you have to go within yourself to be good. Borrowing and eavesdropping gets you on the wrong track."
The recipes that make up the menu of the Golden Carrousel were borrowed, however, from various cookbooks. And in sum they lack one thing. Those coming to practice "The Art of Dining," unlike restaurant customers, are asked to bring an ingredient of their own -- laughter -- and sprinkle it generously over the confection that is set before them.