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.
In Dinner and Delusion, we follow the travails of Sheldon (a decidedly creepy Demetrios Bonaros), a thirteen-year-old boy ignoring his family’s discussion of the role of Israel during a 1949 Passover while fantasizing about his Aunt Rosie. As soon as that fantasy becomes a reality, by my count roughly 20 minutes into the show, the Dinner portion of the evening ends and the Delusion sets in. For the rest of the opera experience we are left wondering: is what we are seeing a fantasy, or real? Is Sheldon really a drugged-out hippie who eventually settles down and becomes a shrink, without losing his lecherous side even in old age? Are we going to have one of those it-was-all-a-dream moments at the end?
I’m not 100% sure that composer Michael Sahl or lyricist Nancy Manocherian were aware of what kind of monster they were creating, but their resumes certainly imply that they are the perfect types to bring this kind of theater to New York. Sahl was a composer for '70s exploitation picks with names like Hot Circuit, Blood Bath, and The Incredible Torture Show as well as fancy-pants movies like the German film Waiting for the Moon about Gertrude Stein and an Oscar-nominated documentary on Adam Clayton Powell. Manocherian, meanwhile, has spent her entire career poking vortex-sized holes in the upper crust of New York City, and I find it remarkable that rich New Yorkers have grown up enough to be mocked so savagely, but fairly, on stage.
Either way, Sahl and Manocherian have provided a vehicle for Kira Simling to show off her Verhoeven-like approach to theater in full force. No matter what you say about Dinner and Delusion, its production values cannot be questioned, as every actor knows exactly where to be and what to emote, and can pipe out a hell of a song, no matter how preposterous the actual content may be. You couldn't ask for more from the technical design; they even make the impossible space of the cell theatre seem like the only possible way to express the play. During intermission, I went to the bathroom, which was at the end of the horizontal living room space, and a sexually graphic sketch was framed on the wall. There was no way to tell whether the sketch was part of the set, nor did it seem to matter. If Simling did mean to add that level of detail to the show, however, she deserves some kind of award, though I don’t know if it should be a Drama Desk or a theatrical equivalent of a Razzie.
While Dinner and Delusion is heavily based on B-movie aesthetics, its presentation is inherently theatrical. Perhaps the greatest joke of all about the play is that it is an opera, which, by taking the highest form of elegance in culture and bringing it to the lowest, adds the same kind of touch as casting James Bond schlockmeister Timothy Dalton in the action movie spoof Hot Fuzz.
Yet, with B-movies, which are projected on a screen, the badness is easy to hide from. I’ve never been a fan of the beautiful train wreck theory of aesthetics—to me, the number of people killed by a horrific tragedy overwhelms the (normally false) sense of beauty the onlooker feels. Yet, I found myself rubbernecking constantly throughout Dinner and Delusion, mainly because I had never seen this kind of mindset applied to theater in such a manner. Maybe that’s why the Bad Movie aesthetic was once so appealing, before Showtime started to use Razzie award victories in ads promoting I Know Who Killed Me. Maybe it was the fact that I was in an altered state from two Seders I had attended in the nights before I saw Dinner and Delusion. But either way, through the power of theater, confusing the dream and reality in Dinner and Delusion clicked. I left the theater wondering which was the right choice: the dinner or the delusion? An awesome work of art, or the worst work of art I’ve ever seen? Or perhaps, Sheldon’s choice at the end of Act I: your mother’s kosher chicken, or massive quantities of LSD?
Dinner and Delusion – Music by Michael Sahl; Libretto by Nancy Manocherian; directed by Kira Simring; musical direction by Djordje Stevan Nesic; costume, prop design by Hilary Krishnan; lighting/scenic design by John Hurley. Photo by the cell theatre.
Starring Demetrios Bonaros (Sheldon), Blythe Gaissert (Auntie Rose/Eden West/Rose), Philip Callen (Bernie/Baruch/Timothy Leary), Peter Clark (Morris/Mike/Freud), Jessica Medoff Bunchman (Millie/Mindy/Disciple), Vivian Krich-Brinton (Sarah/Sara/Disciple), and Christopher Herbert Director (Elijah/Osho).
Dinner and Delusion played at the cell theatre (338 W. 23rd Street) from Thursday, April 9-Saturday, April 11.