Don’t expect deep truths about the human condition from the Guild Theatre’s latest offering, The Food Chain.
Don’t expect a plot that’s more than paper-thin.
Don’t even expect characters that are anything but stereotypes, deliberately pushed to the point of caricature by a playwright deft enough to pull it off.
What you can expect, unless your funny bone has been surgically removed, is a chance to laugh without guilt at the improbable collision of five seriously-flawed egos, each adrift in its own bubble of self-delusion.
What playwright Nicky Silver has wrought—and director Sarah Rodgers and her cast deliver with aplomb—plays like an episode of a somewhat bent TV sitcom.
Silver paints his characters with a broad, broad brush. The fine strokes are in the witty dialogue he gives them.
First there is Amanda (Rebecca Whitcher), newlywed poet with heaps of unresolved childhood issues and a husband who has been on the lam for two of their three weeks of married life.
Then there is Bea (Vanessa Marshak), quintessential Jewish mother and hopelessly unqualified crisis-line worker, who feels betrayed that one of her clients recently hurled himself out the window during a phone call.
“Loneliness is my oxygen,” Bea grandly tells Amanda, who is seeking advice about dealing with her husband’s decampment. “I breathe loneliness.”
Bea counsels the distraught Amanda to change into a shortie nightgown, because “everything looks 100 percent better from within a shortie nightgown.”
Next there is Serge (Stephen Dunbar-Edge), consummately vain runway model who, at age 40, refuses to accept being past his best-before date.
“Is it my fault that I’m unusually attractive?” he asks. “Is it my fault that people are suckedinto me like a vacuum?”
There is Amanda’s husband, Ford (Stephen McGovern), a sad-sack filmmaker with the spine of a jellyfish, whose most intricate line of dialogue is “Uh-huh.”
What little insight we get into Ford comes mostly from Amanda’s revelation to Bea about the vows they exchanged after a week-long courtship conducted primarily in the bedroom.
Amanda, of course, wrote a poem for the occasion. Ford, for some inexplicable reason, delivered a reading from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Last— and far from least— there is Otto (Mike Ellis) a self-loathing nebbish who can’t accept that his brief dalliance with Serge years before is actually over.
He bursts into Serge’s apartment, pleading like an infant to be loved, stuffing himself with junk food all the while and bemoaning the train-wreck that is his life.
He grovels and kvetches, rolls his charming eyes and purrs like a kitten, driving the unloving Serge to the point of apoplexy (some opening-night audience members expressed concern at intermission that Dunbar-Edge might have a coronary).
No matter how forcefully Serge delivers the message that he wants Otto out of his life, that he is in love with someone else, Otto remains oblivious.
“You wear hate the way the salesgirls at Bloomingdale’s wear makeup: in layers,” he tells Serge.
A few moments later, he aims a rocket at Serge’s vanity, “I know pride. I have none myself, but I’ve seen it in others.”
These are not people you can easily admire, or even like, for that matter. But it’s hard not to love them in all their human frailty.
It would be unfair to reveal how their affairs resolve themselves. Suffice to say the ending is comic, though less than credible.
Rodgers has assembled a well-balanced cast and directed them sure-footedly.
Marshak is solid as Bea. McGovern (in his first stage role) is well up to the task of portraying the mumbling, indecisive Ford.
As the run progresses, Dunbar-Edge will no doubt get a better grip on his lines in the final scene, and Whitcher will find more vocal shading in her extremely demanding monologue in the first scene.
But let’s hope Ellis doesn’t change a single note or gesture.
Simply put, he steals the show, with a towering courage and mastery of comic timing that will lodge the character of Otto in your mind for a long time to come.
Silver pulled out all the stops in creating a character straight out of opera buffa, even suggesting in his notes to directors that Otto be played in a fat suit, with no attempt to disguise the fact.
In this production, Ellis sports a prosthetic belly, which he may not need by the end of the run, given the amount of food he shovels down his cake-hole each night.
If there is another star of the show, it is the set designed by Donald C. Watt.
As a director, Rodgers favours simple, abstract sets with no walls. What Watt delivered is simplicity itself: a checkerboard floor with minimalist, but cleverly versatile, furnishings.
The pièce de résistance, however, is the three panels on the rear wall. When the action is in Amanda’s apartment, they serve as windows overlooking Manhattan, first by night, then by day.
In the middle scene, transformed into large mirrors in Serge’s bedroom, they serve as silent symbols of the fading model’s narcissism.
Finally, a note about costume design. The best theatre costumes are so appropriate you barely notice them.
Designer Rosie Stuckless got it right, with one notable (and deliberate) exception.
Dunbar-Edge’s outrageous get-up in the final scene makes him look like a demented gondolier. That costume alone is worth the price of admission.
The Food Chain continues at the Guild Hall Wednesday through Saturdays until April 28. Curtain is at 8 p.m. sharp.