Monday, September 24, 2012

A Mixed Menu

Much has been said about the correlation between frank conversations and the presence of food.
The New Century Theater’s current show,Mary a la Carte, is a worthy exemplar of this familiar kitchen table conversation. In a choose-your-own-adventure-story style, it allows visitors to “order” from Mary’s menu of stories about her life. Each food listed on the menu correlates to a meaningful (and often amusing) anecdote from Mary’s past, which is then ‘eaten’ by the audience with mixed response.
The show is both written and performed by Mary Vander Leest, who originated the show several years ago to a sold-out run. Mary is spunky and unashamed to bare any and all details of her personal life to win over her audience, a characteristic absolutely necessary of this kind of performance.
Some of Mary’s dishes are deliciously funny. A particular highlight was a retrospective look at her experience as a contestant on Wheel of Fortune in the 1980’s. A clear strategist, she outlines the ways she prepared for the show, her observations of her competitors, and the outrageous letter choice that costs her the opportunity to proceed to the championship round. As we watch her lose the game in real-time projection, it’s a great reminder that our best plans are often not enough.
Another great tale is an outline of her mother’s maniacal neatness. Ranging from labeling everything (literally everything) in her home to cutting down cereal boxes as the food in them is eaten, it’s both funny and absurd.
Other stories don’t fare quite so well. Descriptions of her family’s trips to Hawaii result only in her mother stressing about travel, which is relatable but ho-hum. Stories about her parent’s college friends performing party tricks with their penises are crass and somewhat amusing in their novelty, but fall flat compared to her other more palatable fare.
The danger with this kind of show lies in the kind of audience attending it. For highly vocal, involved audiences, it’s great. But a crowd of introverts can quickly kill the ambience. Mine was a mixed bag: half were great sports, but the other half spent so much time not listening and/or texting throughout the show that their interactions with Mary were instantly awkward. I’d recommend going with a spirited group of friends for your best experience. And as alcohol is welcome in the theater, plan on having a drink or two to loosen the mood.
Mary a la Carte is also very much a middle-aged humor type of show. Younger audiences may find themselves a little bored or alienated with some of the stories, and their time is likely best spent elsewhere (if for no other reason than to avoid that dreadful texting-in-theater phenomenon).
Mary a la Carte is a well-rounded show, with a generally pleasing script, set and performance. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but if you like relatable content, interactive performances, or are of the boomer generation, it just might be the coffee to your upside down pineapple cake.
+ Mary a la Carte continues through April 15 at the New Century Theatre, 615 Hennepin Ave., Mpls. For tickets and more information visit