Washington's theatrical productions have been offering not just food for thought this season, but a smorgasbord of food for consumption -- by the actors.

What casts around the city are eating, on stage, is almost as varied as the menus of some restaurants. At Arena alone, one can select from such diverse fare as barbecue and party hors d'oeuvres in "All the King's Men" on Arena Stage; biscuits, grits and chicken in "Joe Turner's Come And Gone" at Kreeger Theater; and even junk food in "American Splendor," in the Old Vat Room, which examines the life of a government file clerk, never far from a doughnut.

For the audiences, watching the current crop of shows is as likely to induce an appetite as it is laughter, tears or applause.

Such productions by no means mark the first time food has been used extensively on the Washington stage. Last year, Arena staged a messy food fight involving several bushels of vegetables, cartons of eggs and 15 gallons of fake milk for the run of "The Piggy Bank," and the Source's production of "Titus Andronicus" featured actors eating guacamole and meat pies (both made from instant oatmeal, tinted green and pink, respectively).

Judging from the amount and variety of comestibles presented, however, by far the most ambitious of the recent bills of fare is that served up in Source Theater's production of "The Art of Dining," Tina Howe's satiric look at a young couple's attempt to run a restaurant in their home. The play, directed by Catherine W. Coke, runs through Dec. 12 at the theater's Main Stage.

For almost two hours, Wednesday through Sunday, actress Kim Scharf, as Ellen, the chef of the fashionably French Pink Flamingo restaurant, is responsible for simulating the preparation of recipes ranging from steamed striped sea bass to crepes suzette. Her character's husband, Cal, played by Jim Hicks, serves as the restaurant's maitre d', who spends most of the time eating the chef's creations -- not to mention the dining room's profits. Rounding out the cast, and the three-table restaurant set, are seven fervent restaurant goers whose conversation sounds as absurdly genuine as that of any die-hard food fan: "I'm so bad, I start thinking about my next meal before I'm even finished eating," says one diner to another.

Offstage, the pre-show food preparation is a collaborative effort divided among director Coke, who does the shopping; Scharf, who does the bulk of the cooking in advance of each night's performance; and stage manager Wayne Avery, whose responsibility it is to make sure every dish, ingredient and kitchen appliance is in place before showtime. On most nights, Avery can be found hunched over a small electric griddle in the theater's production office, making the crepes that are eaten in the final scene.

Avery, who waits tables at an American Cafe by day, likens his trouble-shooting responsibilities at the Source to those of a server who has to juggle five or six things at once. "Opening a play," says the fledgling playwright, "is like opening a restaurant."

Cooking isn't the only chore he oversees. After every performance, a mountain of dishes and glassware must be tackled. To that end, cast members take turns washing, "just like when you were growing up," says Garland Scott, the theater's public relations director.

Because the actors are so close to the audience, the food props must be not only palatable, but must also approximate as much as possible the entrees of, say, veal (Scharf uses poached chicken) and duck (gussied broiled chicken) ordered by the actor/diners. The properties list for the play runs 24 pages long, including recipes, according to the director, although Scharf improvises using instructions for her own dishes.

Out of necessity, some of the food has to be faked. To save on dry cleaning expenses, for instance, the soup spilled on actress Cam Magee is actually plain water mixed with herbs. And perhaps to save the constantly noshing Hicks from the dangers of high cholesterol, a combination of lemon yogurt thinned with apple sauce stands in for the hollandaise sauce.

But much of the food is genuine, including the various salads and stuffings that accompany the main courses served on stage. In one scene, Hicks' character is fed a spoonful of dry mustard. That, too, is the real article -- the actor gamely opted to eat the stuff for the sake of realism, figuring he wouldn't have to force a grimace.

Eating on stage is not nearly as easy as one might assume, says Scharf. First, "you have to time your chewing {as well as the cooking} so that you can say your lines," she explains. And sweet foods, such as the pudding desserts eaten in the play, can impair an actor's vocal clarity.

More than that, she observes, "it's disconcerting to eat in front of 50 strangers."

As much as it focuses on food, "The Art of Dining" also includes a lot of drinking. But when it comes to spirits, realism is sacrificed for practicality. Consequently, apple juice is substituted for a bottle of puligny-montrachet, and iced tea with a splash of Coke achieves the color, if not the taste, of the after dinner brandy requested by actress Faith Potts' character. "It's not Courvoisier, I'll tell you that," says Potts, out-of-character. "But I can't act on Courvoisier, either."

Thus far, the cast has been lucky. There have been no dropped trays (Hicks' biggest fear), relatively few knife cuts (the first night, Scharf forgot to scale the fish before the show and wound up wearing six finger bandages the next performance), and no need for the Heimlich maneuver. Which is not to say the cast isn't prepared for the worst: glasses of water are placed strategically around the set, looking very much at home in the mock restaurant.

About the biggest problem encountered thus far, in fact, has been keeping the food props separate from the theater company's snacks, both of which share space in the theater's communal refrigerator.

The faux kitchen -- outfitted with a stove, sink, refrigerator and sundry kitchen utensils purchased from a Goodwill outlet -- is operational only to the extent that "the cabinets open and close," according to a member of the crew. (In actuality, the set boasts a working blender and a functional refrigerator light.) Set designer Sid Curl tracked down the larger appliances, including a muddied stove, from area junkyards and borrowed a portion of the kitchen set built for Horizon Theater's production of "Mrs. California."

Curl's experience cooking at home proved a boon to Coke, a non-cook, claims the designer. "I was a safeguard," says Curl, who reminded the director of the need to flesh out the walls, shelves and countertops of the set with such standard kitchen items as pot holders and refrigerator magnets, for instance. Even more believable is the set's trash can, loaded with vegetable peels and empty cans.

The set's appeal isn't merely visual. Scharf thought to place a crockpot filled with onions, garlic and beef broth in the rear of the kitchen; throughout the show, the audience is treated to the tantalizing aromas of the simmering stew, which wafts offstage and throughout the small theater. "I know it works," says Scharf, "because after the opening show, my family ran up to me and asked where they might go to eat." (A combination of smoke powder, charcoal and bacon achieves a similar effect in the barbecue scene in "All the King's Men.")

Given the backgrounds of the principals, getting into character was relatively easy. In real life, Scharf three years ago catered her own wedding for 150 guests, and says she disdains mass food (she still regrets the time she used instant pudding as a stand-in for her character's floating island). During rehearsals for "The Art Of Dining," she took a day off from her fulltime job at the State Department to prepare all the dishes her character would be making.

This isn't even the actress' first time dealing with food on stage. As Mrs. Modesto in "Mrs. California," Scharf was seen botching far less demanding fare: macaroni casserole.

Likewise, Hicks' culinary resume includes summers spent hanging out in his grandmother's restaurant in Barbourville, Ky., as well as a job working as sous chef for a catering firm. In researching his role as maitre d', the actor spent two evenings as a waiter-in-training at the elegant Chardon d'Or in Alexandria, where he also polished his pronunciation of the wines his character discusses in the show.

Do the cast members tire of eating the same food, night after night? To the relief of her fellow actors, Scharf occasionally varies her salads throughout the week, she says, and concedes that the menu might change further into the show's run. On a more personal note, offers the actress, "the idea of going out to a restaurant and ordering other than what I cook on stage is a treat."

While it amusingly depicts the country's relatively recent fascination with food and restaurants, "The Art of Dining," written in 1978, occasionally shows its age.

Actor Richard Bertone's character, for instance, spends almost as much time puffing as supping on stage -- in these days of separate smoking areas, and outright smoking bans in public facilities, few restaurants the size of the tiny Pink Flamingo would allow pipe smoking in their dining rooms.

And the rise of such prominent culinary stars as Alice Waters, Lydia Shire, Anne Rosenzweig, Jackie Shen, Joyce Goldstein and others fortunately invalidates the comment made by Pott's character, who praises the uniqueness of the Pink Flamingo when she says, "It's very difficult to find a woman who's a paid chef in this country."