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My Kitchen Wars

By New York City
Dorothy Lyman in My Kitchen Wars(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Dorothy Lyman in My Kitchen Wars
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Set designers this year have been challenged as perhaps never before with kitchens. For Dorothy Lyman's adaptation of Betty Fussell's memoir, My Kitchen Wars, George H. Landry has designed a very homey example. Its hominess may seem quite at odds with the play's title until that title is explained.

Lyman, who also plays the author, notes early in her monologue that "the French got it right when they christened the kitchen arsenal the batterie de cuisine." She goes on to say that "Cooking is a brutal business. If we are to live, others must die...I've spent most of my life doing kitchen battle, feeding others and myself." (Incidentally, designer Landry interrupts his kozy kitchen at its middle with a museum-worthy battery of shiny brass pots and pans that recall the hanging sculpture recently seen in Jonathan Reynolds' Dinner With Demons.)

In her book and in the stage adaptation of it, Fussell talks about how she came to be a cook, how cooking served her during her marriage to the writer Paul Fussell and how it further sustained her when that marriage broke up. Along the way, she paints Paul Fussell as something of an overgrown child. Lyman redacts the author's many observations and delivers them while bustling about the kitchen, occasionally pausing to sit in a club chair while things bake or simmer or whatever it is they're doing.

The past to which Lyman refers starts in 1960, when she met and was courted by Fussell -- an era when women were still thought to be best suited for housework. As the years pass and times change, Fussell's deferential treatment by her hubby begins to bother her. While chatting, she frequently drops out of lighting designer Ji-youn Chang's notice as singer Melissa Sweeney tremulously warbles sections of songs that echo Fussell's growing disillusionment; for example, the old and pithy "You're My Thrill" eventually gives way to the perky Peggy Lee-David Barbour ditty "I Don't Know Enough About You." (The Lee-Barbour marriage didn't last, either.) In time, Sweeney -- who has a nice way with a song and is also responsible for the show's sound design -- has gone from the anti-feminist "Wives and Lovers" (Burt Bacharach-Hal David) to "Isn't It a Pity?" (George and Ira Gershwin).

While going about the abundant activities required to make a meal, Lyman looks as if she must be a fine cook herself. She breaks eggs, separates yokes, and executes other culinary demands with enviable flourish and aplomb, hardly needing to look down from the audience to watch what she's doing. Nor does she make much of a fuss over the dishes she's preparing -- lobster bisque, salade homard avec mayonnaise citron, and soufflé au Grand Marnier. She does her chores so smoothly, including making that mayo from scratch, that anyone who shows up hoping to take notes on procedure may feel rather intimidated.

When Lyman finishes cooking and talking, she sits down to what she's wrought. Very pertinently, she's made the meal for one -- and therein lies the show's sour ingredient. Claiming to be happy as a clam (in a rich sauce?), Lyman as Fussell looks forlorn. She's gabbed on for over an hour about how she's learned who she is over the decades and has eventually averred, in Fussell's words, that "eating alone has its virtues and its rewards." Yet she doesn't seem entirely at peace with herself. Suddenly, an observer realizes that Lyman as Fussell is angrier than she lets on. Did Fussell know how upset she still was when she penned her memoir, or didn't she? If she did know, has Lyman left that awareness out of her slick adaptation, which has been directed slickly by Elinor Renfield?

Lyman's major nighttime television credit, Mama's Family, was all about family rage. On that subject, the show was second in hilarity only to the Eunice sketches of Carol Burnett's variety hour, from which it sprung. Lyman has written for herself a one-woman show that might have been filled with rage but has decided, for whatever reason, to leave that emotion unexplored. In doing so, she turns what might have been a piece about genuine relationship wars into a rather pale recollection of a skirmish.


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