With new restaurants and chefs becoming as hotly anticipated and discussed as rock stars and artists once were, Tina Howe's "The Art of Dining" would seem to be a timely exploitation of our consuming interest in food. The Source Theatre has whipped up a production at its Main Stage, but stripped of the working kitchen and other gustatory gimmicks found in the Kennedy Center's 1979 staging, the play is revealed as empty calories posing as nouvelle cuisine.
As A.R. Gurney Jr. did in his superior "The Dining Room," Howe attempts to gently lampoon the fork-and-knife styles of the upper crust. Her play is a trifle about Ellen and Cal, a yuppie couple who run a perfect French restaurant in their home. After we listen to them worry at length about their sauces and shopping lists, the playwright's focus shifts, and we are suddenly eavesdropping on the vapid talk wafting from three tables.
Howe is interested in the integral connection of food and sex and civilization. But in the words of one character, the point really seems to be "the things you overhear in restaurants." Howe works hard at her preposterous platter-chatter, but you are almost certain to overhear more intriguing morsels at your local Little Tavern (and more distinctly, too).
The production suffers from enervated direction by Catherine W. Coke, who in a playbill note provides us with the dictionary definition of "humor." Given the evidence, it seems Coke needs a dictionary to locate humor. Among other indignities done to Howe's already fragile play, Coke awkwardly -- actually, it seems more like randomly -- inserts an intermission into the 90-minute one-act, changes the name of the restaurant from the Golden Carousel to the Pink Flamingo (which renders ludicrous the patrons' fawning over the restaurant's "antiques") and interrupts the haltingly farcical flow with yawning pauses that leave conversations stranded like floating islands.
The cast is ill-matched and overheated, though Cam Magee milks laughs from her confused character, a morbid, nearsighted writer named Elizabeth Barrow Colt. Set designer Sid Curl has placed the kitchen upstage, so chef Ellen (Kim Scharf) all but vanishes from view, effectively removing the novelty of watching a cook in action -- the only thing "The Art of Dining" had going for it in the first place. The Art of Dining, by Tina Howe. Directed by Catherine W. Coke; setting, Sid Curl; lighting, Michael Matthews; costumes, Timothy White. With Madeline Austin, Richard Bertone, Brian Desmond, Andrea Hatfield, Jim Hicks, Cam Magee, Elizabeth Pierotti, Faith Potts, Kim Scharf. At the Source Theatre Main Stage through Dec. 12.