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Dinner for Six

Filichia samples Chef's Theater and breaks bread with some theater notables.

By New York City
"So," actor Erik Sherr asks me, "are you going to review the food, too?" We're sitting at a table on opening night of Chef's Theater at The Supper Club, with which you get Jim Walton, Paige Price, and Shannon Lewis performing five numbers plus a special guest appearance from a star. Tonight's star is the fabulous Michele Pawk, who never disappoints. But the performers are not the main event: The gimmick of the show is that a chef comes in and cooks right there on the set (Beowulf Borritt's elegantly European kitchen) while we watch what he's doing on a TV screen high above the action.

Well, we are in an age where maverick shows -- Blue Man Group, Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, Stomp, and plenty of others -- amass lengthy runs because they're markedly different from your average play or musical. Once upon a time, people went to the Broadway theater district to see stars like Mary Tyler Moore and Florence Eldridge but now they see Tyler Florence, the chef at Cafeteria, Planet Food, and Food 911 -- and, more to the point, the man who was named "The Sexiest Chef Alive" by People two years ago. According to the program, he'll cook seared tuna with chunked avocado and soy-lime vinaigrette; crisp roast poussin with garden puree and lemon olive oil; and basil panna cotta with honey, passion fruit, and sesame oil. Behind him are unseen chefs who'll make the same meal for us.

Though you're seated at 7:30pm, you don't get to eat until a good hour has passed, but I find it a good hour for I'm seated with some marvelous people. Choreographer Jerry Mitchell and the aforementioned Erik Sherr sit to my right. Mitchell tells me about growing up in Paw Paw, Michigan. "I'm like Mike in A Chorus Line," he says -- and he rather is, except that he followed his older sister to dance class and then afterwards, in their living room, would help her remember the steps. When I asked if his sister was "now married and fat," he related that she was definitely married but not at all fat. Good for her! And, of course, good for Jerry Mitchell, what with his dances for Gypsy and Hairspray doing him proud on Broadway and with La Cage aux Folles soon to come. I ask him what shows that came before his time he would have liked to have directed and choreographed; he makes a sad face and apologetically tells me that he's not big on musical theater history but, instead, focuses on the here and now. I like him anyway.

When I ask Erik to tell me about himself, he says that he's done Shakespeare in places like New Jersey. "The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey?" I ask, citing the state's best classical theater; he replies, "No, the Princeton Rep." Boy, is he surprised when I ask, "Oh, were you in The Merry Wives of Windsor last year? Or King Lear the year before that?" For Princeton Rep, an outdoor operation that offers two shows a summer to about 100 people per performance, isn't on many theatergoers' radar. "I was Albany in Lear!" he exclaims "How do you know Princeton Rep?" When I confess that I review New Jersey theater for the Star-Ledger, he immediately cries out my name in a joyous voice -- "because you gave me a good review, which appears on my website." Of course, I'm glad I didn't pan him, or else it would have been a very long evening.

Alice Ripley
Alice Ripley
Alice Ripley and her husband Shannon Ford sit to my left. Ripley mentions how happy she is that I didn't think she was Emily Skinner, as many people do -- all because of the jump-start that both of their careers got when they were literally and figuratively linked as the Hilton Sisters in Side Show. Of course their appearing together again in James Joyce's The Dead, not to mention making two albums for Varèse Sarabande, exacerbated the confusion. But, of course, Ripley has had her own career before and since. I ask the couple how they met and Ripley surprises me by blithely saying, "When we did Hee-Haw together." They've been together for 13 years now and have worked together on pop CDs of song she's written. One of the songs, Everything's Fine, is already out and another is on the way.

Then who comes to sit at our table but Rex Reed. As happy as I was that I had written something good about Sherr, I had to wonder if Reed saw my pan of the way he emceed the Friars Club Tribute to Charles Strouse a few nights earlier. Oh, well, if he puts two and two together when he hears my name, I'll endure a cold shoulder -- or a hot one if he chooses to dump on me his plate of crisp roast poussin with garden puree and lemon olive oil.

I needn't worry for Reed doesn't bother to ask me my name; he's only interested in talking to Ripley. He tells her how glad he was to see her L'il Abner, which astonishes her, for her four day stint in that Encores! show a few years back is not what people usually mention when speaking with her. It's usually Sunset Boulevard, The Rocky Horror Show, Side Show -- or even The Full Monty or Dinner at Eight, though those credits belong to Skinner.

In time, Reed does get to Side Show, saying that it's his second favorite flop of all time -- "right next to The Grass Harp." I, the world's greatest Grass Harp fan, must have made some sort of astonished face, for his first words of the night to me are: "Do you know The Grass Harp?" to which I staunchly say, "Ever since January 1967 in Providence, when I saw it with Elaine Stritch as Babylove." I don't ask Mitchell if he knows the show, for even though it played a pre-Broadway tryout in his home state before it made its way to the Martin Beck in late 1971, I assume that he doesn't in view of what he told me earlier. Anyway, now I'm really sorry that I panned Reed.

Let's go on with the show. Walton is charming, Price is delectable, and Lewis is fine in a deft number by Ahrens and Flaherty. Then out comes Florence, whose looks have apparently held up since the People piece. Then he starts cooking. Listen, I love to eat, as anyone would infer from my unfortunate girth -- I do have a washboard stomach but one that appears to still have a load of laundry attached to it -- but cooking has never interested me. I eat my every meal at a restaurant and I actually had the stove in my apartment disconnected several years ago; since then, I've used it to store important papers. So, for me, watching even a great chef do his stuff is as non-compelling as watching paint dry. The lines that I'm hearing Florence say -- "We're gonna pan-roast this guy" and "Good salt and good pepper make all the difference" -- don't represent my favorite lines of dialogue of the 2003-2004 season. What's more, I do believe that his demonstration of how to make panna cotta is lost on most of the TV-screen watching crowd, for he prepares the white substance on white Formica and scoops it into white cups. The whole thing looks like the painting in Art.

Tyler Florence
Tyler Florence
But this is a minority report. The orgasmic moans that Ripley gives out when Florence describes a piece of cheese would make an excellent soundtrack to a porno movie. When Florence encourages questions, Mitchell raises his hand and asks one: "What if you don't have an oven?" Ah, I think, we are brothers under the skin! Except we're not. Turns out that Mitchell loves to cook but the penthouse he bought doesn't include an oven; he uses some type of grille on his many-hundred-foot-square patio.

No matter what Edwin Drood tells us, I do believe that Florence should quit while he's ahead. It's not enough that he wants to dazzle our tongues, bellies, and eyes; he also wants to delight our ears, and so -- I swear it! -- he starts singing "Summer Wind." Everyone at our table gives out with delighted laughter that simultaneously says "Hey, you know, he isn't half-bad" and "Honey, don't quit your night-job."

Still, a good time is had by most everyone. We'll see if any critic who attends comes up with a better line than Mitchell's: "It's like going to the show and the opening night party all at once!"

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]


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