Look Who's Coming to Dinner

A play full of hang-ups: John Riedlinger and Jodi Kellogg in Leitmotif

Let me be absolutely clear: I am a fan of the Theatre de la Jeune Lune, and my critical skills are compromised as a result. To describe myself as a mere "fan" may be understating the case. I left my position as editor in chief of a newsweekly in Omaha, Nebraska, to become a theater critic in Minneapolis because the idea of writing about the Jeune Lune was irresistible. There were other reasons, to be sure, but none so compelling, because the Jeune Lune creates onstage a world I wish I inhabited, and am constantly frustrated to find that I don't.

Even when this company's work is at its slightest--and their latest play, Chez Pierre, is so slight that at times it threatens to rise into the air above the audience like a dirigible--I sit in the audience and gnaw my lips with envy. Chez Pierre isn't even a proper play, but instead a fanciful location in which the Jeune Lune actors can launch their comic inventiveness off one another without ever getting bogged down in distractions such as careful plotting or dramatic logic. Instead, the events at the eponymous restaurant flow with the logic of a dream.

In Chez Pierre, the restaurant's lone customer (Barbra Berlovitz) watches in amazement as the bartender (Robert Rosen) folds a tablecloth, and beneath the cloth such items as cups, silverware, and eventually the customer herself vanish in an unexpected moment of legerdemain. During a break, the restaurant's chef (Vincent Gracieux) absconds into a bathroom stall, only to emerge later dressed in swimwear, soaking wet, with a cry of "Refreshing!" A musician (Eric Jensen) pops out of a freezer dragging a bull fiddle with him. He appears and disappears at will, sometimes carrying a toy piano, inspiring the cast to break into ridiculous, impromptu song-and-dance numbers.

Odder still, the audience has been split in two. Some watch the events in the restaurant's kitchen, unaware of what occurs in the dining room. The remaining audience witnesses the activities in the dining room, oblivious to whatever occurs in the kitchen. Then, during intermission, the audiences switch places and the play begins again. This is clowning in its finest and most sophisticated sense, where any activity at any moment might spin off, without fuss, into elaborate, ingenious routines. I leave the Theatre de la Jeune Lune and ride the bus home, watching the other passengers expectantly, but they never begin to juggle or pantomime. I sit in bars and wait for the customers to pull out ukuleles and begin to sing, or fall to the ground in elaborate drunken pratfalls. No ukuleles ever emerge, and the collapsing of a drunk always seems more tragic than humorous. My life is poorer for this, as are all our lives.

I have been attending Jeune Lune plays my entire adult life, and desperately missed them when I was in Omaha. I am not an actor, but my desire to share the Jeune Lune's world was such that it occasionally inspired me to audition for their productions when I was younger. Wretched performer that I am, I was never cast, and had to satisfy myself by volunteering as an usher and watching jealously from the theater doors as the theater's cast lived out onstage the life I desired.

As a result, I look forward to Jeune Lune plays with the unreasoning expectations of a partisan, and am always slightly disappointed as a result. I griped at the end of Chez Pierre that the events in the dining room seemed a little stronger than those in the kitchen, and that the busboy team of Nathan Keepers and Luverne Seifert seemed to complement each other better than the waitressing team of Sarah Agnew and Leah Price--but it was the griping of a man who expected his life to be transformed by a play, and whose life was not transformed. Just as an explosive orgasm will render each subsequent orgasm a little disappointing, Chez Pierre left me grumbling like a lover at the end of a rushed, fumbling bout of passion: "Yes, it was very nice. I mean, it wasn't mind bending, but it was fine..."

For Christ's sake, man--you got what you wanted! They cannot all leave you sobbing and struggling to remember your own name, and you ought to know better than that.

By comparison, let us look at Leitmotif, by Minneapolis actor and playwright Patrick Coyle, which is mostly foreplay, hardly gets around to the lovemaking, and misses the climax altogether. Coyle's story, staged here by the Original Theatre Company details the interrelated lives of a handful of characters in a coffee shop, including a woman with a mysterious past (Jodi Kellogg) and a thickheaded young man with a penchant for making unnerving phone calls (Zach Curtis). The dramatic thrust of Leitmotif comes from its characters' questionable behavior, but Coyle raises more questions than he can possibly answer. In fact, the play ends with a character suddenly declaring that she is pregnant (I'm not ruining anything by revealing this, by the way; the pregnancy is tangential to any of the events in the play), inspiring one theatergoer to cry out, "What is this, a cliffhanger? I'm not coming back next week to find out what happens!"

Whatever failings Coyle may have as a playwright, he is a canny director of his own material, casting Leitmotif with a marvelous group of actors. A single scene in the play, detailing a confrontation between an older man (Stephen D'Ambrose) and his daughter's stalker (Curtis) is a classic example of fine actors creating compelling drama out of middling material. D'Ambrose imbues his character with an easygoing authority, such that he effortlessly asserts himself over the massive Curtis. When D'Ambrose declares that he would do anything to protect his daughter, we take him at his word.

Unfortunately, we spend the remainder of the play waiting to witness D'Ambrose live up to his word, or at the very least for the cast to pull out ukuleles and begin to hurl them like throwing knives. Instead, the play slips slowly to the ground like a drunk, and--as always--the results are more depressing than entertaining.


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