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    Dinner With Demons

    Chef d'oeuvre

    Julia Child pioneered the spectacle of cooking. The Iron Chef gave it cult status. The Food Network took it mainstream. And Jonathan Reynolds gives it heart in his cooking show plus monologue "Dinner With Demons."


    There is a moment in Jonathan Reynolds' "Dinner With Demons" in which the actor/auteur/food critic closes his eyes, fondling a breast with extreme pleasure. It's a conspicuous act which Reynolds acknowledges for humor's sake, but the fact that there's nothing pulsing anywhere near the flesh of the cold turkey — save the melting aroma of butter-sauted onions — makes it no less voyeuristic. But that's okay, since voyeurism is what the off-Broadway play — in a limited run at the Second Stage Theatre — is all about.

    Written and performed by: Jonathan Reynolds.
    Directed by: Peter Askin.

    Related links: Official site
    Second Stage Theatre
    307 West 43rd St. (at 8th Ave.)
    Nov. 25, 2003 - Jan. 18, 2004

    Reynolds is a playwright more recently known for his biweekly food column in the New York Times Magazine. This new effort combines his talents in a single rambling, soulful, and autobiographical work about identity and influence — the titular demons.

    The set is spectacular. A kitchen scaled to a giant's proportions, with glass shelves of colorful liquids stacked to the rafters of the former bank vault against a sky-blue backdrop. The whole is framed by an archway of dangling pots and pans, polished and winking like Christmas lights. Stage right sits the science-fiction vision of a potbellied stove: an acrylic deep fryer capped with an enormous steel hood. This is where the meal's pice de rsistance happens — the act of shriveling a turkey into golden brown caricature, glistening with fat. Sink and stove sit stage center, bookended with a pretty double oven and seafoam-green refrigerator; the wiring is cleverly hidden and there are fire extinguishers everywhere. The look is pure mad scientist — with exquisite taste.

    Dinner With Demons  
    Into this walks Reynolds, replete with airborne scientist hair and an eccentric plaid apron.

    At first, the actor's delivery is full of a golly-gee cheeriness which rings slightly false, as if compelled to fill silence. His cooking — more glib than the monologue — is distracting: the mind recedes into couch potato mode as Reynolds peels, dices, and blends. He grew up wealthy, son of a fabulously successful newspaper magnate and chilly New England mother, who moved Reynolds and his brother to a Fifth Avenue duplex as soon as their bitter divorce became final. He chats about his father the womanizer, and calls his mother the "warden" of his youth, interspersing commentary about the dishes.

    Slice. Make mental note of tomato sorbet. Yawn.

    Reynolds is a skilled multi-tasker, and his physical rhythm is entrancing. There are laughs as the actor builds his case. As a teenager, he was in love with Kim Novak, and did what a rich boy can: used Mom's credit card to fill her hotel room with flowers. (She even takes his phone call.) And still the material is difficult to relate toand not all that moving.

    Then in walks Uncle Buss.

    I say this figuratively, given that this is a one-man play. Yet Buss, whose last name is Remick with a daughter named Lee, is palpable as the first person of refinement and good values to enter Reynolds' life. His presence is a turning point — in the play and in Reynolds' life.

      Dinner With Demons
    Reynolds describes their first dinner. The mischievous, curious boy — who is suffering under his mother's view of him as a troublemaker — orders the inevitable: pheasant under glass. When the dish arrives and the dome is lifted, Uncle Buss leans into the steamy cloud, proclaiming it beautiful. The pronouncement is a revelation to Reynolds, and he recalls it with a feeling akin to romance. Burrowing aestheticism is another way to see a trouble-seeking youth, and the world takes on a steamy new visage.

    And abruptly, halfway in, sandwiched between a Reuben apple pancake and a rich potato souffl, the tale overtakes the food, and sidles onto stage center. This is better than the Food Network after all, and suddenly you don't regret paying to watch the preparation of a feast you'll never, due to health regulations, get to taste. What began as a somewhat aimless reminiscence is really not aimless at all, but a coming-of-age in which the subject is in his sixties and the players are largely dead.

    Like most coming-of-age dramas, you don't get to find out much about what happens after the boy grows up, except that he never fully resolves his difficult relationship with his mother. But there is a short epilogue: Reynolds cannot leave out his all-important adoration of his cousin, renowned actor Lee Remick. This dish is whipped up and tossed in almost impulsively, but compellingly.

    As the audience knows, Remick dies young. And so ends an effort more promisingly than it began, bittersweet and lingering.

    DECEMBER 26, 2003

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