Dinner theater seems like the perfect package deal, a meal and a show for less than either might cost individually. In fact, the combination has been enormously successful over the long history of dinner theaters, including that of the Hayloft, currently presenting the musical "Annie."

The Hayloft is a big barn of a place, its red and black dining room a throwback to another era. We almost expected to see Henny Youngman appear on stage to warm up the crowd. Instead, we got the general manager telling old Henny Youngman jokes, and a house magician, an engaging fellow, strolling among the tables. A small army of cocktail waitresses, busboys and staff worked the crowd as ably as the magician, leading guests from drinks to dessert (and back to drinks) with efficiency.

I'm told that the Hayloft changes buffet menus from show to show, which explains the "New York, New York" dinner theme being paired with the run (through Aug. 18) of "Annie," which is set in the Big Apple.

At exactly 7 p.m., a black curtain at the side of the center stage was parted to reveal two colorful buffets loaded with food and crowned by two enormous ice sculptures. Guests were led to the buffet in the order in which they had purchased their tickets and reminded not to go back for second helpings until the light above the buffet flashed. The menu promised "some of the best of the Big Apple," but what it delivered was some of the worst food I've ever had.

The food looked better from my table than it did up close, though the steamship rounds of beef, which competed with the ice sculptures for room on the buffet, were rather handsome, and the most filling fare of the evening. Otherwise, the spread was truly unimpressive, and the canned fruit in the "fancy fruit salad" was the least of its shortcomings. The seafood kebabs, for instance, were rubbery-textured wands of scallops and spongy tomatoes. Worse yet were the stuffed zucchini boats, filled with what tasted like hot diced Spam. And what was passed off as a deli platter would have incited riots in New York; the selections I sampled were close to inedible -- fatty and oddly bland tasting. Children weren't spared from the buffet's weaknesses either. For them there were "Sandy Dogs," a play on the name of the show's canine: tiny cocktail sausages wrapped in nearly burned buns, leaden and dull.

Not everything was awful, but nothing I sampled was better than mediocre. The roast beef was lean and not overcooked and the "Bowery rice" was well seasoned, but these do not a satisfying buffet make. (Looking back, one of the best parts of early evening was a little pot of "fromage mousse," a ringer for Cheez Whiz, that arrived with cocktails before the buffet.)

If dinner was disappointing, however, the show was proper redress, an upbeat and engaging finale to a very rocky first act of a meal. The Hayloft sticks with family entertainment ("Oklahoma" is its next endeavor) because the formula works. Perhaps the buffet should follow the show's cue.