Talk Soup

It would be hard to like playwright Nicky Silver if he weren't funny, and the same can be said about his new play, The Food Chain, at the Alley's Neuhaus Stage. In person, rather than chatting, Silver offers a monologue. Similarly, his play doesn't really allow for dialogue between characters; instead, the characters perform for each other, often without so much as a pause for breath. But the result makes better art than it does conversation: The Food Chain pulls together three tightly directed and riotously funny scenes that are connected by a crisis hot line operator and a twisted love rectangle.

Over the past six years, Silver has written three hit off-Broadway plays (Fat Men in Skirts, Pterodactyls and Free Will & Wanton Lust), using a formula that hones in on the children of the Reagan era who were sucked into the beauty myth so deeply that they can't let go of either their all-encompassing self-hatred or their sense of fashionable attire. Much of what Silver writes is autobiographical (he once worked in couture suit sales at the upscale New York retailer Barney's), and the context of The Food Chain is no less so -- the characters here are mostly young, urban, educated and aware enough of pop therapy to discuss shame spirals with perfect strangers.

The Food Chain opens on much-distressed 30-year-old professional poet Amanda, whose husband, Ford, has been missing for two weeks. Amanda hasn't eaten in days, has left pitiful messages on a friend's machine to no avail and finally, to the tune of Billie Holiday's "Black Coffee," breaks down and calls a crisis hot line just to have a conversation. Who she gets on the other end of the line is Bea, a freshly demoted counselor who recently lost a client to suicide -- and who is less disturbed by that than she is disgusted with the poor chap's lack of chuztpah. Bea is a little Jewish mother who has more interest in Amanda's sex life than in her woe.

Amanda's occupation as a poet is a clever way for Silver to indulge in precious language, but the ploy doesn't entirely work. It's hard to believe that a woman who has quite literally lost her husband is able to spew out metaphors as easily as Amanda does. Silver never really seems to be on Amanda's side, and so never lets the audience really pull for her. How can an audience relate to a character who says contrived things such as "I've strayed" while telling a story? We can't, even though Melissa Bowen is admirably precise as Amanda, pulling off her series of extended jokes and sorry tales with class and wit.

The character the audience does pull for is Otto, whose hopeless love affair with Serge, a male model, completes the other side of the play's love rectangle. The mystery of how completely Serge and Otto fit into that rectangle is revealed, to the great delight of the audience, in the play's last scene. Otto is fat -- fat because no one loves him, fat because he just lost his job and fat because his diet consists of "a Slim-Fast with every meal." A hopeless case who visits his therapist twice a day and talks to his mother at least six, Otto works at Barney's in couture suit sales and pursues Serge with reckless abandon. This includes the questionable courting tactic of showing up at Serge's door with two bags full of groceries, which he consumes in a frenzy, showering his would-be lover's chic apartment with crumbs and litter. Jeffrey Bean does such a marvelous job as Otto that I missed him every time he left the stage. A large man with an easy grace, Bean makes Otto's ridiculousness endearing -- seeing him writhe around on Serge's bed amidst a host of snack debris makes suffering through the occasionally arch scenes with Amanda bearable.

While watching Bean grovel is the central appeal of this production, there are several clever touches in both Gregory Boyd's direction and in Richard Isackes' tongue-in-cheek design that unify the play's three scenes. The direction is most evident in both Bowen's and Bean's mini-monologues (in the first and second scenes), where Bea interjects Amanda and Serge retorts in disgust to Otto. As Amanda, Bowen paces, jumps up and down on a chaise lounge, re-enacts a wicked day and describes in erotic detail the first night she spent with her now missing husband. And during Otto's scene, layered more organically with Serge's disgust, Bean roots around on the bed, mows down a dozen doughnuts and flops around on the floor like a pitiful, bleating calf. Both actors have succeeded in making intensely physical, and no doubt meticulously choreographed, stage direction work for their characters beautifully.

The cohesive direction doesn't, however, carry over to the last scene, where Silver pulls together the play's loose ends. The previously tight stage picture falls apart, and the entire cast is stuck in a holding pattern that makes the first two scenes appear even more fluid by comparison. The intent behind the earlier frenetic pace is replaced by plodding, and the play's energy, along with the audience's patience, quickly leaks out.

The Food Chain isn't the kind of comedy that triggers a deep moment of recognition, as the best comedy can. And despite a lot of talk from Amanda about how beautiful people rule the world, it's not a play that will aid an examination of life in the '90s. What this production does well is showcase some clever stagecraft and some fine jokes. In so doing, it keeps alive a tradition Silver has become known for: little substance, but a lot of laughs.

The Food Chain plays through June 9 at the Alley Theatre, Neuhaus Stage, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.

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Megan Halverson