Doing the unprecedented is not necessarily a good thing; in fact, there are an infinite number of bad things you can do that are certainly unprecedented. If I were to walk around Manhattan stabbing people while dressed as a rhinoceros and singing “Shoop” by Salt-N-Pepa, it would be unprecedented. We all understand that’s not good behavior. Yet, if I were to say that Dinner and Delusion was unlike anything I’ve ever seen on stage before, you’d probably think that was a good thing. (Never mind, for a moment, that doing something unprecedented is the whole point of live theater.)
But what if I were then to tell you that Dinner and Delusion was based on a weaker version of the same basic premise of Portnoy’s Complaint, with Freudianism so obvious that its creators seem to have forgotten Freud thought you repressed things, and that it featured cameos by the Good Doctor along with Timothy Leary, Osho, and the Prophet Elijah? And that it all centers around the Seder? Some people, those who confuse the unprecedented with the good, would assume that’s awesome, simply because they would have never thought of it. The others, those who can distinguish good and bad for themselves, might very well think that it’s the worst idea they’ve ever heard.
There’s a long, glowing, reverent tradition of the B-movie, or the “bad movie”; J Hoberman of the Village Voice popularized the idea in his 1980 Film Comment essay “Bad Movies.” In theater, however, where the medium's existence is much more fleeting and price more expensive, success in putting across camp, schlock, and so-bad-it's-good motifs has been much harder to achieve. The occasions where B-movie aesthetics did work were usually flash-in-the-pan successes, like The Producers, Xanadu, or Jerry Springer: The Opera. But those were all mainstream successes, and one of the key elements to a bad movie is its intentionally low production values.
With the cell theatre providing a cramped, horizontal space for Dinner and Delusion, the new opera has joined the ranks of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage and Toxic Avenger: The Musical as part of a new generation of B-theater, a result I’m sure the predominantly jacket-and-tie, Upper West Side Jewish audience didn’t anticipate.
As it stands, Dinner and Delusion was the closest theatrical experience I’ve had to a Paul Verhoeven movie. Paul Verhoeven, who made B-movie schlock mainstream without sacrificing its aesthetic in glorious travesties like Starship Troopers, Showgirls, and Black Book, is famous for taking the most preposterous premises with the worst scripts imaginable and somehow making them work, his utter conviction making everyone involved with the production, from designers to actors on down, commit to a project like it’s the greatest art work ever.