Jonathan Reynolds in Dinner with Demons(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Jonathan Reynolds in Dinner with Demons
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Jonathan Reynolds never cooked for his mother, although he once did cook for his father and enjoyed the delighted response of the old men when he bit into the fried catfish. Reynolds doesn't cook for audiences at Dinner With Demons either; unlike Ed Schmidt, who's serving a four-course meal downtown at The Last Supper, Reynolds cooks in front of the patrons and invites them to salivate unrequitedly while he slaps a holiday turkey around, whips up a mashed-potato souffle, purees tomatoes for a brilliantly colored sorbet, and, with aplomb, flips an apple pancake confected with heaps of butter and sugar from an old Reuben's recipe. (Ah, Reuben's! The famed delicatessan, late of East 58th Street, vanished from the Manhattan scene so there'd be some place to plunk Bergdorf-Goodman's Men's Store, but not before putting a sandwich into the language and into hundreds of thousands of mouths.)

As Reynolds lopes across Heidi Ettinger's airy kitchen -- which looks like something smartly equipped and operative that you'd see on the cooking channel -- he also reminisces about his parents, who turn out to be the demons to which the show's title refers. Seems the playwright/food writer was born rich on Manhattan's Upper East Side and grew up a rebellious son of divorce. (Reynolds could be considered a forerunner of the kids Jamie Johnson interviewed for his Born Rich documentary.) The adolescent Reynolds made a habit of trying his aloof mom's patience by totaling a car, causing trouble at a series of prep schools, racking up enormous bills at 13 by sending flowers to Kim Novak at her Sherry-Netherlands suite, and indulging in many other shenanigans. He rarely saw his newspaper magnate dad but he does tell one hair-raising tale about his father driving over a union activist who'd lain down in the old man's driveway during a protest.

While affably vouchsafing contempt for his folks, Reynolds recalls with far more affection his mother's brother Frank Remick, called Bus, and his first cousin, Lee. She was, of course, the beloved actress on whom he had a crush when he was three and she was still 12 years away from catching Elia Kazan's eye for A Face in the Crowd. The Remicks of Quincy, who owned Remick's of Quincy, set the examples for the kind of person Reynolds eventually decided that he wanted to be. It's their influence, he suggests, that led him finally to view his wealthy but unwieldy progenitors charitably and speak of them with the sense of unity and healing that, according to him, cooking for others often supplies.

Discoursing about the family amiably and occasionally archly, Reynolds, in his knockabout clothes and apron (there's no costume credit in the program) digresses to discuss his preparations. He deep-fries the turkey but only after slipping his hands under the skin to rub cayenne pepper into the bird with all the satisfaction of a man doing something far more intimate, and he hefts a couple of skinless tomatoes with the same licentious enthusiasm. "Through food," he remarks, "I discovered that I was a sensualist." And so he minces, dices, and whips with similar sensual ease. He even dances to the voluptuous strains of "Moonglow" that are offered by sound designer John Gromada -- though he doesn't move with quite the lubricious finesse that William Holden and the adored Kim Novak displayed in Picnic. Sometimes, Reynolds's digressions stray from the specifics of the mouth-watering recipes to generalities, such as his observation that it's never a good idea "to argue with anybody's comfort food." He also claims that "one way to get over self-pity is through hedonism." And, possibly most germane of all, he notes that "Meals are supposed to be joyous."

That's about it for Dinner With Demons, which seems less a play than a cooking show segment with more than the ordinary kitchen philosophizing -- although the phrase "that's about it" may sound unfairly dismissive to ticket-buyers who are far more fascinated by how other people ready food for the table than I am. I love to eat, but what's been done to a dish before it's put before me is something that I don't feel the need to know about in the finest detail; for example, I couldn't be less interested in what spices have been added to a haute-cuisine omelette as long as it's spicy. In other words, what might be too much information for me might be not enough information to food and cooking lovers for whom no amount of hints and tips on arcane dishes can ever be enough. These are the swooning aficionados who illustrate the Stendhal Syndrome when, say, a sushi chef starts manipulating his knives.

Jonathan Reynolds in Dinner with Demons(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Jonathan Reynolds in Dinner with Demons
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Reynolds's presentation, which Peter Askin has directed with the kind of skill that makes effort look effortless and Kevin Adams has lit with care, is something that he doesn't address yet exemplifies with every gesture: cooking's value as therapy, which is hardly an obscure notion. Reynolds is living proof that a person needn't lie on a couch in order to examine traumatizing parental behavior; there are other ways to understand and integrate complicated, often immobilizing feelings. (Perhaps that's why those pureeing appliances are called processors!) Indeed, Reynolds's reiteration of filial animosity and his eventual coming to terms with it -- which he reaches with the added help of Paul McCartney's deceptively whimsical "Let 'Em In" -- is like a tab version of a successful period of analysis.

The problem that his relaxed activities and chatty manner present as a "play with cooking" is that, when Reynolds finally reaches his conciliatory conclusion, he brings it to the dramaturgical table in the way that waiters at fancy restaurants serve a discreet plate of cookies to supplement an elaborate dessert course. The notion registers as a pleasant amenity and not as meat-and-potatoes nourishment.

FYI: Because of city health codes, the dinner Reynolds runs up cannot be distributed to the audience. Ed Schmidt gets away with feeding his Last Supper flock because he doesn't charge for his handiwork but, instead, asks for voluntary donations. Neither can the heaping Reynolds platters -- each meant to serve five or six people -- be given away to charitable organizations, which have stipulations precluding such gifts. For these reasons, the food is eaten by the backstage crew. And, according to a spokesperson for the production, the gang is "fat and happy."