REVIEW: “Slow Food” — International City Theatre, Long Beach
This one is for anyone who’s ever been “hangry.”
A vacationing couple heads to a Greek restaurant for their anniversary dinner — but will the marriage survive the service? International City Theatre announces a virtual presentation of "Slow Food," a deliciously tender, uproarious comedy by Wendy MacLeod, directed by Marya Mazor.
The premise is simple. ICT's production throws three excellent comedic actors together into a wildly awkward long-playing scene and then wisely stays out of their way. The undertaking proved robustly rewarding with a perfect production.
Stu James (NAACP, Broadway World and Scenie award-winner for “Recorded in Hollywood”) and Meredith Thomas (Lifetime’s “The Wrong Crush” and “The Wrong Boy Next Door” alongside Vivica A. Fox) star as an ordinary, middle-age couple hoping to celebrate 23 wonderful years of marriage on a trip to Palm Springs, California, and who find themselves trapped in a restaurant at the mercy of a mercurial waiter.
Famished, and alone at a table on a terrace with this saucy seneschal, they suffer his moods, his habits, his quirks and his adoration. It’s just the sort of funny machination we all dread encountering in real life on a Sunday night in March in a strange place that claims to be a Greek restaurant, though there is no spanakopita. We fear it for real as we watch the botherment take place, but we instead simply laugh ourselves silly.
Perry Ojeda (“Is He Dead?” at ICT; Broadway productions of “On the Town,” “Blood Brothers,” “Imaginary Friends”) is the wacky, obnoxious waiter, Stephen, who insinuates his way into their meal, shepherding them through such a perfect dining experience that nothing — not even a bread basket — can reach the table.
Ms. Thomas plays the wife, Irene, with an even keel, balancing her husband’s hotheadedness and the waiter’s eccentricities. She keeps the situation from escalating with the right tone and a keen awareness of when to exert emotion and when to dial it back. She also scintillates comedically with her deadpan delivery and subtle reactions.
She and Mr. James create a relatable couple. They move effortlessly through anger, sadness and resignation. When they discuss their marriage, especially feelings of no longer being desirable, the realness onstage makes you feel like you’re eavesdropping. These tender moments give the show the heart it needs to balance its absurdity.
Though the couple obviously has some issues within their marriage, the dramatic tension mostly comes from the couple’s hunger. The frustration escalates, words become heated, and a lighthearted romp gets underway.
Mr. Ojeda’s Stephen deftly carries the audience along on a wave of amusement. The waiter is an over-the-top character, but Mr. Ojeda has a way of making this character role seem natural, and we accept the waiter at face value. Yet even with his outrageous antics, Mr. Ojeda was matched by Mr. James’ impatient and exasperated Peter. Watching Peter come unglued was a big reason the show works. Meanwhile, Ms. Thomas delivers a composed performance with an underlying volatility, more or less functioning as the "straight person," or foil, and working to placate the waiter without sending her husband over the edge.
As Irene and Peter grow increasingly emotional and word-spar with their attendant, it’s revealed that the waiter is going through a bit of a midlife crisis, including a current ordeal regarding his cat. But thankfully, the play never loses its way or forgets that the mission here is all giggles and whoops. We learn just enough to keep the plot moving, flesh out the characters, and feel some warmth for them.
One good reason Ms. Thomas is effective is, she gets her laughs by not playing to them. As Irene, she can handle the situation as long as her husband is not rude or bait the waiter. She is self-inspiring until pushed into hypoglycemia, at which point she defers to her baser instincts.
With that, Irene encourages her husband, Peter, to pretend he might be bisexual and flirt with the waiter, who clearly has marked him as a target for his abusive ways. Peter is at first uncomfortable with the whole scenario, but when he turns from a belligerent diner into a flirtatious philanderer, the tone of the play alters hilariously.
It is the oddest of possible choices, but like so much in this play, it is almost inevitable. Mr. James is brilliant making the shift from one type of man to another, all for the cause of trying to charm up some good service and some food. He turns Peter from a maddened clown into an almost Chaplinesque figure. And funnily enough, it almost works.
Stephen, however, is no fool. Middle-aged, gay and lonely, he has dealt with bisexual customers before, obviously, and he is almost completely resolute, unwavering. His purpose, his only purpose, is to bring them an unforgettable culinary experience and nothing can shake him from this goal. And, as if cementing that commitment, Mr. Ojeda buoyantly uses those subtle glances, postures and poses that can bring anyone to wish they’d never left home.
Playwright Wendy MacLeod has written a witty and wonderful play that is more than just comedy. And she has done it focusing on a small square table that provides intimacy as well as subtle distance. Best known as the author of “Women in Jeopardy!” and as a writer for the TV cult sensation “Popular,” she has also earned acclaim and awards for the plays “Schoolgirl Figure,” “The House of Yes,” “The Water Children” and “Juvenilia.” The 1997 film version of “The House of Yes,” a wicked black comedy about an assassination fetish, starring Parker Posey, won the Sundance Award and international acclaim. We're a long way from a black comedy here, though, as “Slow Food” isn’t the least bit dark. Only slightly exasperating.
The creative team behind “Slow Food” includes Director Marya Mazor, Artistic Director and Producer caryn desai, Costume Designer Kim DeShazo, Sound Designer Dave Mickey, Prop Master Patty Briles, Video Editor Mike Bradecich, Casting Director Michael Donovan and Stage Manager Donna Parsons. Lucy Pollak is Publicist.
Catch this one if you can. “Slow Food” will stream April 29 through May 16 on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (dark Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays). Best if viewed during the dinner hour. Tickets are priced at $30 per household and are available for purchase now at www.InternationalCityTheatre.org.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
photo credit: Mike Bradecich