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Tasting Memories

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Tasting Memories is a brilliantly conceived and intriguingly cast exercise in exploring the links between passion, food, and theatre. A moderately ambitious undertaking, the show, which has been devised by Michael Fischetti and Emily Mitchell, contains many interesting ideas, but mostly feels like an appetizer in search of an entrée.

So, if you decide to partake of the show, you're likely to leave the theater a bit hungry. The connections made between emotions and food, as observed and described by a number of authors, poets, and songwriters, and presented by a group of stage veterans, are occasionally amusing or warm, but always friendly. They're also not rich enough to stick with for long afterwards.

You're far more likely to remember your companions for the evening: the eight performers Fischetti, Mitchell, and director Don Amendolia have assembled to perform will appear on a rotating schedule, and their names will be familiar to most seasoned theatergoers. At the performance I attended, Fischetti and Mitchell were joined onstage by Philip Bosco, Tammy Grimes, Alvin Epstein, and Kitty Carlisle Hart. (Rosemary Harris, Kathleen Noone, Joy Franz, and Mel Cobb will appear at some performances.)

The performers are perched on chairs placed around Drew Donovan's sparsely suggestive living room set, holding notebooks from which they read a series of prepared selections. The food-inspired musings constituting the evening come from writers as diverse as Marcel Proust, William Shakespeare, Irving Berlin, Ernest Hemingway, Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, and Anton Chekhov, and they're punctuated (or, as necessary, accompanied) by Rick Hip-Flores at an upstage piano.

Mitchell provides some limited narration, attempting to connect the pieces, but the works are generally allowed to stand alone and speak for themselves. Most do, and successfully, but the lack of a firm structure prevents the evening from ever really taking shape. There's a random quality about the choices of pieces, and little sense of dramatic build present; only near the end of the evening, during a series of readings devoted to the aphrodisiacal properties of the oyster, is there a hint of the wry, adventurous piece Tasting Memories might have been.

The show as a whole is very safe, never threatening or particularly involving. Mitchell and Fischetti are on the right track with the idea, but even the close confines of the Neighborhood Playhouse feel too big for this material - the show is so intimate, it needs an even more intimate setting, where stories can be shared quietly and personally, with little thought given to the theatrical realities unavoidable in even the most modest of stage productions.

It should be noted, though, that theatrical necessity can bring out the best in the stars assembled for this venture, and projection (of voice and personality) is never really an issue; these people send them both to the back of the house. Bosco's voice is expressive and strong, and his tones wrap beautifully around the words of Swift or Pablo Neruda in a comforting, enjoyable way. Epstein soars with his brilliant comic performance of a song from the Weill/Brecht The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny; Grimes's deep and experienced musical-comedy tones make her every speech, from Proust to Reichl to Fisher and beyond, a pleasure. Fischetti and Mitchell lack the same star power, but both are fine, though Mitchell's narration would benefit from a bit more spontaneity.

Then there's Hart, still radiant at 93, charged with delivering most of the evening's songs. While her voice isn't what it once was, she brings a beguiling, irresistible charm to songs like "A Cup of Coffee, A Sandwich And You" (Al Dubin, Joseph Meyer, and Billy Rose) or "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee" (Irving Berlin), and commands your attention exactly the way a star of any age should.

That she still has It is never more evident than in her 11-o'clock number, William Bolcom's "Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise." As she describes the horrific confections her women's club have concocted, you can see in her eyes more than just the glimmer of youth, but the signs of life that the theatre is capable of bringing out in anyone. When Hart gives herself over to it, and by extension the audience, her voice is stronger, and her performance produces a joyous spark that no one else quite matches.

This demonstration of theatre's contribution to life - and memories - is almost enough of a reason to see the show; you can establish memories of these timeless performers if you don't have them, and create new ones if you do. Those interested in the vitality of recent theatre history won't want to pass up this opportunity, and while Tasting Memories could have accomplished more, in many ways it's worth savoring just as it is.

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Colleagues Theatre Company
Tasting Memories
Through June 13
Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes with no intermission
The Neighborhood Playhouse, 340 East 54th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.239.2996