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Little Bites 

An entertaining tasting menu of sweet and savory short plays

Wednesday, Feb 1 2006
Last summer, at an SF Weekly party, I suggested to my editor that all the critics at the paper switch jobs for one week. "The art critic could review theater, the food critic could write about exhibitions, and I could try my hand at covering restaurants," I shouted above the din of a packed SOMA club. "It would be an interesting experience, don't you think?" I don't know whether the music was so loud that my boss didn't hear me or if she doubted that the experience would be of interest to anyone besides myself, but the conversation quickly turned to other topics.

I haven't brought the subject up again. But having recently tasted Sean Owens' "Odd by Nature" at the Exit Theatre, I now realize that I don't need to hijack Meredith Brody's column in order to write about fine dining. For Chef Owens' evening of short plays brings to mind the experience of supping at Gary Danko or the French Laundry -- and at a fraction of the calories and price.

"Odd by Nature" can perhaps best be described as an adventurous 10-course tasting menu. It's not that Owens' theatrical amuse-bouches transfigure the soul in the way that a meal at Thomas Keller's triple-Michelin-star-rated French Laundry invariably does; rather, "Odd" might casually be summed up as a thoughtful and witty, if slightly patchy, night out at the theater -- no more, no less. But the analogy is apt in the sense that the playwright/director/actor has not only created a feast of bite-size comedies that entertain and provoke like high-end haute cuisine, but he's also structured the evening as one would a royal banquet.

Owens whets the appetite with a strange little hors d'oeuvre. The five cast members -- Owens, Libby O'Connell, Joshua Pollock, Nick Sholley, and Michelle Talgarow -- float around the stage to the sound of Don Seaver's saloon-style piano playing, alternately draping themselves over bits of shabby antique furniture and, somewhat incongruously, exchanging oven gloves with each other. Seaver even makes a bold attempt at playing the piano while wearing a pair.

This charade segues smoothly into the first course. Climax -- Owens' curtain raiser concerning a stilted, pre-dinner party conversation between a middle-aged couple played by Owens and O'Connell -- gives the audience a taste of the playwright's flamboyant style. With soufflé-light wit, he shows us the lengths to which two people will go to avoid really talking to each other. The couple, Mason and Beryl, prattle on inanely while more pressing issues, such as the state of their marriage, are comically deferred. Take this snippet of conversation, for instance:

Beryl: We've been so many places ... over the years.

Mason: (Re-enters, with the pearl necklace.) Oh I wouldn't wear them over the ears, dear, you'll shock the children.

Beryl: If only we had any ...

Mason: Any what?

Beryl: Any biscuits, I'm very hungry.

This double act's word-association games are about as clumsy and heavy-handed as playing the piano in oven gloves -- the perfect metaphor for Beryl and Mason's life together. And as the play perversely undermines its own title by deliberately putting off any sense of climax, Owens draws us tantalizingly on to the next dish.

Sudden Descent is, as its name suggests, a bit of a letdown. Though the comedy, a whimsical spin on the old adage "Pigs might fly," shows off the chef's flair for witty one-liners, the staginess of the piece, with its endless waltzing and monotonous, fourth wall-breaking narrative style, leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Potentially interesting underlying ideas about chaos theory and the relationship between will and causality get lost in the pork stew.

Owens spices things up again with his vivaciously warped monologue Buried Alive by the Hottest Guy. Beginning with the words "Dear Diary," a nonplussed young gay man explains how he wound up buried six feet underground. Owens' sharply drawn portrayal of this naive yet lovable character is as dark as it is hilarious.

Je Ne Sais Pas and The Chattanooga are the plats de résistance. Separated by the briefest of palate cleansers -- One Man (At a Time), a nouveau-Noel Coward song about tempering one's (sexual) appetite -- these two meaty main courses are as rich in lunatic wordplay as they are in topsy-turvy logic.

Je Ne Sais Pas takes place, appropriately, in a fancy French restaurant. Exploring, as the play's subtitle explains, "the fallacy of causal relationships," the comedy begins, like the famous children's rhyme, with an old woman who swallows a fly, then munches its way through other ghoulish, nursery rhyme-inspired delicacies, including "l'arraigne [sic] en brioche" (spider popover) and "le chien au vin" (dog in wine), and finishes ... well, we all know what happens to the old woman upon ingesting a horse. Owens builds to an explosive climax with this piece, playing with genres as diverse as Hammett-style detective fiction and Monty Python-esque sketch comedy while piling on the galloping rhymes.

In the whacky Chattanooga, O'Connell -- who seems to have a particular affinity for playing dignified matrons -- considers the benefits of a different kind of climax. A picture of Victorian-era propriety, the actor (channeling the prim chairwoman Letitia Cromwell) addresses the genteel members of a ladies' club, as they sip tea and nibble crumb cake, about the "revivifying" effects of the Chattanooga, a motor-powered, 6-foot-long "miraculous invention" aimed at revolutionizing women's lives. This twisted reworking of ideas most famously sent up in T. Coraghessan Boyle's 1993 novel The Road to Wellville is pretty tasteless. Yet it still provides an appetizing commentary on a century's worth of sexual revolution.

A succession of desserts rounds off the evening, from amusing trifles like The Sex Life of Rob & Laura Petrie, a musical meditation on the bedtime antics of The Dick Van Dyke Show's central couple, to The Projectionist, a peek into the sordid world of film fetishism. Once we've gorged ourselves on the wobbling, Chantilly-laced layer cake that is Danger at the Dardenelles, a comic melodrama that infuses Coward-inspired flamboyance with a dollop of George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, we can't imagine having room left for even one wafer-thin mint. But after Everyone Loves Porn, a chaser sung by the entire cast to a rousing show tune, Owens leaves us wanting more.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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