Monday, December 11, 2023

"Dinner for One" at Jungle Theater

Jungle Theater's original piece Dinner for One, based on a 12-minute comedy sketch written in the '20s, is sheer delight. Artistic Director Christina Baldwin came up with the idea for the show, and co-created it with Sun Mee Chomet and Jim Lichtsheidl, with the former directing and the latter two performing. Featuring an odd ritual of a dinner party for Miss Sophie's 90th birthday and her imaginary guests, personified by her loyal servant, it's the perfect vehicle to show off the strength of the creators. And although I would like to say it's the rare show I wish were longer (it's a scant 60 minutes), it's perfection and I wouldn't change a thing. Somehow those 60 minutes are fuller and more satisfying than many shows two and three times its length. Dinner for One plays Tuesdays through Sundays until New Years Eve; I recommend you get your tickets to this one sooner rather than later.

The show begins like a silent movie, with James (Jim Lichtsheidl) carefully rolling out a cart with a birthday dinner for one, and Miss Sophie (Sun Mee Chomet) descending the stairs dressed all in black, and refusing the dinner. This scene is repeated several times, with somewhat different results, as she begins to slowly accept items from the cart. There are no words exchanged, just a few signs hidden in opportune places to help set the scene. We then jump forward 20 years to the birthday party, James once again carefully setting up the dining room, this time a table for five. Sophie enters in a resplendent gold brocade gown (costume design by Ora Jewell-Busche), presumably out of mourning, and in this part of the play they do speak. It seems to be a routine they go through every year, with James playing the role of four of Sophie's gentleman friends, reminiscing about times they've spent together in the past. It's a game that delights Sophie, and James gamely plays along in order to make her happy. But he becomes increasingly tired of it throughout the evening, and increasingly drunk as he has to drink for four people during each course that he serves. When things start to get out of hand with any of the guests, Sophie calls for James, and he snaps back into himself. It's a ridiculous evening, but there's a genuine connection between the two.

Director Christina Baldwin notes in the program, "Silly and beautiful is my favorite combination, and this has it in spades." It's a perfect description for this show, chock full of physical comedy and exaggerated slapstick (how many times can Jim Lichtsheidl crack me up tripping over a carpet? every single time.). The characters are ridiculous - boisterous Sir Toby, stern Admiral von Schneider, soft-spoken Mr. Pomeroy, and romantic Mr. Winterbottom - and the jokes are the kind of thing that work in any time or place, with almost a vaudevillian feel. But behind the silliness you can see the love and companionship that these two people feel for each other, in a very sweet and tender way. This is largely due to the talent of these two performers. 

Jim Lichtscheidl and Sun Mee Chomet
(photo by Lauren B. Photography)
I've seen Jim play multiple characters several times before, and he's an absolute genius at it. He just completely physically transforms into each of these characters, but with hint of James still in them, switching back and forth at breakneck speed. His physicality (tripping, acting increasingly drunk) and facial expressions are endlessly entertaining; he is perhaps the best physical comedian I've ever seen, and watching him is always a joy. Sun Mee's performance is less showy but no less skilled as she portrays the somber mourning Sophie, the elegantly giddy lady of the house (with a charming wordless hmm hmm of delight at everything), and the bittersweet nostalgia in remembering times and people who are long gone. The two of them together are a perfect pair, and duet on the sweetest version of Auld Lang Syne to end the evening.

But that's not all - there's also music! Music Director Emilia Mettenbrink has chosen and arranged a lovely selection of classical music that is an integral part of the storytelling. The score plays up the comedy and the emotion, and the musicians (pianist Lara Bolton and violinist Angela Waterman Hanson at the show I attended) interact a bit with the cast, as James claps his hands to begin and end the music. They're seated charmingly inside a frame at the back of the room, which brings me to the gorgeous design (by Eli Sherlock). The whole stage is draped with rich red curtains, empty frames hanging in mid-air, the floor covered with carpets, with detailed props and food on the large and stately dining room table. Chandeliers hang everywhere around the space, even over the audience, that flicker with meaning (lighting design by Marcus Dilliard). And keep your eyes peeled for old-timey cat portraits.

Dinner for One is 60 minutes of theatrical perfection - sweet, funny, charming, silly, bittersweet, and thoroughly entertaining. The show continues through December 31, with a special dining experience option for New Year's Eve. See the Jungle's website for more information and to order tickets.