Ed Schmidt prepares The Last Supper
Ed Schmidt prepares The Last Supper
For reasons that a skilled semiotician or someone like Faith Popcorn might be able to explain, this season has seen the traditional dinner-and-theater combo conflated into one event on more than one occasion. Is it economics? Has the price of both eating out and theatergoing escalated so much that these shows have materialized as a cost-efficient solution? Among the examples are Eduardo Machado's The Cook, where you watch food being lovingly prepared; Jonathan Reynolds's upcoming Dinner With Demons, where ditto; the recent Omnium Gatherum, where the audience watched the cast consume an Alfred Portale meal; and even A Stoop on Orchard Street, where you get an especially briny pickle at intermission. Is the avant-garde or reasonable facsimile of it following where the populist Tony and Tina's Wedding led?

Who can say? But somewhere in the answer may lie the impetus behind Ed Schmidt's ticket-includes-dinner presentation The Last Supper, which the playwright has been doing for quite a while, although he's only recently moved the very site-specific show (?) from his home in Brooklyn to a Manhattan apartment. Here, Schmidt prepares dinner for a couple dozen people while earnestly acting most of the parts in an updated passion play and expatiating on a number of related and unrelated subjects. If Schmidt has unconsciously picked up something thrift-induced in the zeitgeist, he would likely say that this isn't his primary purpose in doing what he so energetically does. A dramatist who eagerly admits that he's bored with fourth-wall presentations, Schmidt's main interest is clearly to shake up the average Joe Show's notion of what theater has been, is now, and can be. He's only the latest in a long line of theater-lab experimenters; but he's an enthusiastic if easily distracted and perturbed one who, at the very least, has found a new slant on "dinner-theater." And the repast he eventually sets before ticket buyers is no kind of disgrace, though an evaluation of it is more the domain of a food critic than a theater reviewer.

In addition to pushing the old dramaturgical envelope as far as possible, Schmidt has other considerations on his mind. Foremost, as his title implies, is religion -- or, more precisely, faith and belief. These appear to be his initial concerns when the audience members have perused the pair of crosses and framed pictures of saints on the walls of the room and taken their places in genuine pews facing his culinary altar. Claiming to be a Universal Life Church minister, Schmidt seems determined to make his congregants focus on spirituality as he begins preaching with mounting evangelical fervor. Then he abruptly shifts into enacting a playlet that involves two women and a man called Judas who's plotting a betrayal over his cell phone.

Whatever Schmidt's about goes awry rather quickly. Gregarious to the point of nerves, Schmidt insists that he's not an actor. He reiterates that what he contends is true and then begins making definitive statements about himself and his intentions that he almost always quickly contradicts. This isn't a play, he might say, and then confess that it is or could be. Gesturing with all the gusto of an Italian dockworker, he finds himself backing and filling when the repast he's working on hits a snag. The dinner includes fish -- Schmidt has read the parable of the loaves and fishes -- and as it founders, he flounders.

To say much more about how he proceeds and how he seems to involve the attendees while really not involving them would be to spoil the enjoyment of the experience. Schmidt, who gives the impression of being a very adroit actor, indeed, has an aim that eventually becomes clear: He wants to instill the crowd with a sense of not knowing what to expect, which is one definition of good theater, and then bring it to the expect-the-unexpected stage, which is another definition of good theater. "If you believe in the storyteller," he declares, "you believe in the story." And by establishing faith in him as a metaphor for faith in a much more encompassing sense, he plays for all he's worth the audience's willingness to put its trust in him.

Endeavors like this one almost always incorporate subversion, and as Schmidt explores the numerous possibilities of his amorphous premise, he is subversive whenever he can be. The program-cum-missal includes a long-winded and waggish bio about theater companies and agents who have rejected him, along with a disclaimer about funding for this operation. It ends with this perhaps not so tongue-in-cheek statement: "Mr. Schmidt firmly believes that he and other like-minded artists are entitled to the financial largess of the very politicians and businesspeople whom their art seeks to undermine, overthrow, and replace."

Even while being thrown off-guard almost from start to finish, a theatergoer -- that is to say, yours truly -- can't find anything heartily to dislike about Schmidt's folly. This particularly holds true in light of the fact that payment for the piece is voluntary. Schmidt, who apparently does all of the cooking himself (although his wife and children might make impromptu appearances), inserts an offering envelope in the program and suggests that happy customers leave behind contributions ranging from $50 to $75. (When he held forth at his Brooklyn address near Prospect Park, where he at one time had a waiting list 1,000 patrons long, Schmidt asked for $25 to $40. If nothing else, this tells you something about the difference in what you can get away with from borough to borough.)

Even if your belly is more satisfied than your mind when Schmidt has finished at the oven and joined the customers at table, you can't really feel scammed. Schmidt is a bright, thought-provoking guy, even if the thoughts -- his and yours -- tend toward the idle and stray. Over the course (pun intended) of three hours, he's nourished you in some manner. He sets 13 at the table but he and his iconoc-last supper leave you feeling far from unlucky.