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Review: Let Me Cook for You is a One-Woman Show with Taste

Orietta Crispino invites us to an intimate dinner party off-off-Broadway.

Orietta Cristino wrote and stars in Let Me Cook for You, directed by Liza Cassidy, at TheaterLab.
(© Maria Baranova)

The confessional solo show is ubiquitous. Even with the death of the Fringe Festival (a meat market for such fare) New York's stages annually host myriad variations on the theme: Here's how my crazy family turned me into an actor. I have even come to suspect that one theater in particular is the final flourish of a very expensive therapy program for children of the rich and famous. So it was with some trepidation that I attended Orietta Crispino's Let Me Cook for You, a trilogy of solo plays at TheaterLab, the scrappy arts venue Crispino founded in 2006 and still runs. Although her show is far from perfect, I was pleasantly surprised by the ways Crispino deviates from the recipe.

Rare for an off-off-Broadway show, Let Me Cook for You invites audiences to remove their masks (a recent negative Covid test is required to enter) as Crispino prepares and serves dinner for a group of no more than 15. The irresistible scent of garlic simmering in olive oil underscores Crispino's stories about her unexpected birth in Genoa, her emotionally volatile mother, her Nonna Ernestine (the great chef and storyteller of the family), and her elusive father. While the meal of Zucchini and tofu over rice feels more reminiscent of Chinatown than Little Italy, the flair with which Crispino hosts — offering extra helpings of food and wine with a side of memory — is unmistakably Italian.

It was also a thrill to see the unmasked faces of my fellow guests reacting to this ancient form of dinner theater. The simple removal of that barrier fosters an air of comradery, which at my performance led to much conversation in the intermission and a lingering audience following the play's conclusion. This is a blessing in our age of atomization, in which social groups seem frozen in amber and outsiders are too often treated as vectors of disease. For three magical hours, the typical (and increasingly stultifying) rules of New York theatergoing are lifted. It all feels like an intimate dinner party among strangers, hosted by an inscrutable mutual friend.

Orietta Cristino wrote and stars in Let Me Cook for You, directed by Liza Cassidy, at TheaterLab.
(© Maria Baranova)

That would be Crispino, an alluringly strange presence whose toothy grin radiates warmth while also seeming to conceal many secrets. She shuffles around her kitchen (TheaterLab's front gallery space) in impractically high heels telling us about her plan to marry David Byrne when she moved to New York. The Talking Heads play from a corner boombox as Crispino conscripts an audience member to help her plate the rice. She often gives the impression that she is ad-libbing, repeatedly describing things as "great" or emitting a sharp little "ha" at the end of her lines. It's unpolished, but totally fascinating.

The second part takes us to Crispino's walk-in closet (TheaterLab's theater space) where she presents a collection of garments, some of which she inherited from her mother. Riva Fairhall's intense lighting helps us to appreciate the vibrant colors in this tiny museum of Italian fashion, and Crispino even allows us to touch the fabric. She dons several pieces over the course of the hourlong section, as if attempting to wear a memory. Decked out in various shades of purple, she picks through a box of baroque lingerie and claims, "I used to be such a lonely young woman." There is a quiet profundity underneath this theater of the mundane, as Crispino pairs items that could have been pulled from a Fellini film with Nomi Malone-era Versace: Real life is rarely the product of a uniform design; we are all just mixing and matching as we go along.

Orietta Cristino wrote and stars in Let Me Cook for You, directed by Liza Cassidy, at TheaterLab.
(© Maria Baranova)

The third section takes us back to the gallery to hear a soundscape in total darkness (dreamlike sound design by Asa Marder). Literally and figuratively, it's the opaquest of the trilogy, but it does force audience members to really listen — and it delightfully ends in dessert.

The lights-up reveal of colomba and sweet wine is the exception in Let Me Cook for You, which overall suffers from a lack of dramatic punctuation. Sections end awkwardly and abruptly, with an officiant announcing the intermission or beckoning us into another room. Crispino and director Liza Cassidy could do more to make these moments feel more intuitive. Still, Crispino's gentle presence and a series of bold design choices keep us hooked. Let Me Cook for You is a show that engages every sense, even when it doesn't seem to make much sense at all.

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