Food For Thought

Photo Credit: Kate Gaffney

Dining With Ploetz

Written by Richard Ploetz

Directed by Richard Ploetz and Steven Hauck

Presented by Theater for the New City and Nedworks, Inc.

at Theater for the New City, NYC

September 5-22, 2019

Aside from some connection to food, the trio of one-act plays that comprise Dining With Ploetz all feature people coming together around some significant milestone: a birthday, an (almost) anniversary, and the hashing out of plans for an unusual dinner party that will fulfill one man's intensely desired dream. From the pen of Richard Ploetz, a multidisciplinary author, voiceover artist, director, and professor who has written for the page, stage, and screen, Dining With Ploetz serves up three courses of comedy spiced with "food for thought," to borrow a description from the program, and garnished with delectable performances. To top things off, five percent of net profits from the show will be donated to World Central Kitchen, a not-for-profit NGO founded by chef José Andrés to function as "Food First Responders" for communities affected by disasters.

Goldfish, the first of the triad and directed by Ploetz, has some of the feel of a grittier, more eclectic New York City that is increasingly vanishing today (and, relatedly, some of the feel too of a strain of NYC plays represented by playwrights such as Edward Albee). When the play opens, following a piano rendition of "Happy Birthday" merged with Beethoven's "Für Elise," only a single guest has shown up for the birthday party held for six year-old Sabrina (Claudia Fabella) by her parents George (Christopher Borg) and Cindy (Elizabeth A. Bell). The fête is in what they call their loft (reasonable rent; no heat on nights or weekends), located in the rug district and containing an amalgamation of painting supplies, rolled-up rugs, mismatched furniture, a piano, the titular goldfish, and other heterogeneous items. The single guest is Cindy's former coworker turned business partner, Beth (Wynne Anders). Just when it seems that they will have to declare the night finished, however, a stone sails neatly through the glass-less window, announcing the arrival of Rick (Steven Hauck) and Susan (Jamie Heinlein), both invited by Beth, both dressed for a cocktail party (George, in contrast, is sporting a track suit, partly unzipped to reveal his white undershirt; and Cindy is still wearing her waitressing uniform), and trailing an impressively bearded, overalls-and-bandanna-wearing poet, Bill (Ryan Hilliard), whom they met on a street corner on the way over. What follows includes some relatively inappropriate flirting, questionable table manners, and class-inflected masculine posturing—this last allowing Hauck, whose Rick once upon a time fenced, to render the words "thrust and parry" much funnier than they have any right to be. Fabella, even with almost no dialogue, gets a few big laughs herself, including one involving a toy truck and some bones (bones, come to think of it, are another motif uniting all three plays in Dining, even if they only enter the second play through a waiter's enthusiastic mispronunciation). Intermingled with all of the strangeness and even silliness are unrealized ambitions and unfinished thoughts and sentences, an underlying lack of fulfillment such that Susan gives unexpectedly serious consideration to a proposal from George just because, she says, it would be something different.

After a brief intermission, the strong second half of Dining starts with Memory Like a Pale Green Clock, directed by Hauck, which takes us to a different kind of fishbowl, an upscale restaurant, and offers a different take on not remembering. Memory sees Christopher Borg and Jamie Heinlein as English professor Robert and his wife, Louise. Louise is suspicious of the roses that she was sent and this fancy night out, but Robert assures her that, thanks to a little inspiration from James Joyce's "The Dead," he has just decided to celebrate their sixteenth anniversary a little early. "The Dead" is a story, ultimately, of personal and national paralysis, which should perhaps worry Louise a bit, but the meal is going well and plans for later seduction are being described, until, when a woman in dark glasses (Elizabeth A. Bell, who also does some great work in Goldfish) sits at a nearby table, Robert's conviction that he knows her derails the evening. It leads, for example, Louise to question why he always "inspects" other women and Robert to ask why she doesn't look at men, and, while there are some highs and lows for the couple, the questions don't get any less fraught from there. Borg and Heinlein, both excellent in Goldfish, here create a terrific portrayal of the teasing, charged, intimate dynamics of long-term couples. We discover that the couple completely misreads Helen, as they do the waiter, Walter (a very funny Ryan Hilliard, trading in poet Bill's free spirit for reserve and exasperation), in a moment that occasions a breathtaking shift in tone. These misunderstandings speak to our tendency to empty out or project onto others, since others effectively cease to exist for us when we aren't with them. Further, as Louise says, we even create a nostalgia for what never was, so that when our sense of our own memory is disrupted, we feel betrayed, reminded, unwished-for, of our mortality.

The plays that make up Dining with Ploetz are successively more stripped down—leaner, if you prefer—and Bone Appetite, the final play, directed again by Ploetz and loosely based on events that took place between Bernd Brandes and Rotenburg resident Armin Meiwes, features just two chairs and a pair of men meeting for the first time. These men are Arny (Christopher Borg), an enthusiastically salt-of-the-earth guitarist for a band called The Cruds, who were involved in a Great White-style nightclub fire; and Matthew (Steven Hauck), a rather more refined man with a particular culinary predilection. Arny dreams of being an orgasmically spectacular roast. In pursuit of this dream, Arny has answered Matthew's ad. When someone responds to one of his ads, Matthew likes to get to know the whole person, and the conversation between this odd couple touches on pleasure, acceptance, and, again, memory. Borg is superb as the kind of guy you might run into in a dive bar with unsigned bands playing in the back room, and Hauck plays off him in terrific fashion, as Matthew's cultured exterior is penetrated by Arny's weirdly pure ardor.

Juxtaposing the three plays of Dining With Ploetz allows them to speak to one another in interesting ways, much as the melancholy notes in all three stand out the more for being set against the predominant comedy. Entertainingly executed by a splendid ensemble, Dining With Ploetz is worth making a reservation for. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler

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