SLOW FOOD at Dorset Theatre Festival is a Funny and Sweet Finish to DTF's 2019 Season.
When New York empty-nesters Irene and Peter head to Palm Springs to celebrate their anniversary, they are envisioning a carefree trip full of rest and relaxation. Instead, they get stuck with a cargo van as their rental car, a nonfunctioning hot tub at their hotel, and Stephen, a waiter at the only restaurant that seems to be open late on a Sunday evening. While vans and hot tubs are minor hiccups on their anniversary trip, Stephen proves to be a formidable obstacle to their marital bliss when it becomes clear that their food will not be coming anytime soon.
Thus begins Wendy MacLeod's SLOW FOOD at Dorset Theatre Festival directed by Jackson Gay and featuring Peri Gilpin and Dan Butler in the roles of Irene and Peter and Greg Stuhr as Stephen. The design team included scenic designer, Antje Ellerman, costume designer, Fabian Fidel Aguilar, lighting designer, Michael Giannitti, and sound designer, Sinan Refik Zafar.
With the stage--and table--set, the audience buckles up to see how these clear and competing character motivations will play out in this 90-minute comedy, played without an intermission, so we can feel the rising desperation in real time. Irene and Peter just want to eat. Stephen, well, his needs seem to be a bit more complex. And as we witness Stuhr's highly entertaining emotional rollercoaster careen and freefall, the chaos upsets the couple's steady predictability and forces them to take a hard look at their relationship and the life that they have built together.
Gilpin and Butler play a convincing married couple of twenty-three years, their eleven seasons working on the set of NBC's Frasier as Roz Doyle and Bob "Bulldog" Briscoe giving them an authentic sense of familiarity with one another. Alternately, you feel the distance, too. Their characters have been so wrapped up in raising their sons and pursuing their careers, they seem to have lost their bearings with one another somewhere along the way. Both do a wonderful and nuanced job of conveying this pivotal moment in their relationship--it is bittersweet and represents a transition that can be rough to navigate for any couple.
Add low blood sugar to the mix, and the task can become downright herculean.
Enter Stephen, the waiter. He seems fixated on providing service to the hungry couple that is just right. It just also seems to never be "right now." He defies all expectations for what we think waiters should be: courteous, helpful, efficient and--once the food comes--nearly invisible. Greg Stuhr's performance is larger than life and he just about steals the show. He milks every line and plays each beat for subtext, innuendo, and laughs. While the general nature of Stephen's particular neurosis means his ongoing subversion of the couple's explicit stated desires is no great surprise, the wildly different strategies he takes continue to elicit appreciative enthusiasm from the audience. Stuhr plays the indefatigable Stephen with verve and tenacity.
Dan Butler as Peter has to shift personas quickly and frequently. Sometimes this is intentional, such as when his wife suggests that he attempt to seduce the waiter in order to expedite their food order. Sometimes, he reveals a more default self--one that severely judges his son's choices in life and refers to gay waiter, Stephen as "you people," exposing prejudice and intolerance in a flash. He'd be a hard character to reconcile if it weren't for the handful of moments of true vulnerability, where all the other trappings of self seem to fall away. Butler manages all these layers well and does ultimately allow us to leave cheering him on.
Peri Gilpin portrays Irene as centered and very nearly unflappable. Although much of Irene's life is revealed to us through judgement from or comparison to her husband, we see enough in her struggles and responses to know she is strong and fierce in her own right. Gilpin excels at conveying a sense of magnanimity that would be required of a therapist, but I must admit it is tremendously enjoyable when she does come slightly unhinged, on rare occasions. The mention of McDonald's as a potential dining alternative hits a particular nerve with her, although I admit I kept wanting her to be a little harder on Peter about some of his own past transgressions.
There was also a dissonance in the script that kept me from full immersion; an offstage character is described as being "like 700 pounds" and Irene later observes, "He doesn't need a therapist. He needs Jenny Craig." The characters are flawed people, to be sure, and sometimes these gaffs seem like they are there intentionally to show the characters in their imperfection. This, however, felt like it was played for an easy laugh and it was not necessary. The play is quite funny without gratuitous fat-shaming.
Overall, the play offers small glimpses into the grittier underbelly of the couple's life together, as their hungry pushes them to say and do things they'd never dream of in more grounded moments. Through these cracks, we build a better understanding of who they are--and aren't. There are flaws and imperfections, blind spots and blunders, but through it all, their foundation of love for one another seems to emerge anew through the hazy of hunger and exhaustion.
SLOW FOOD is a fun and fast-moving comedy that will leave you laughing, but it is also a tender examination of how love reveals itself in many ways throughout the course of a life or, in this case, a lifetime of waiting for the main course.
Slow Food by Wendy MacLeod runs August 22 - 31 at the Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, VT 05251 $48-$58. For tickets or information, call (802) 867-2223 ext. 101, or visit www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.