The phrase “a dish for the gods” comes from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (and Julius Caesar), and it is the title chosen by Victor L. Cahn for his play A Dish for the Gods directed by Adam Fitzgerald, currently at Theatre Row’s Lion Theatre, until October 5th. The reference appears when the character Greg (Kevin Cristaldi) tells Julia (Margot White) that she is “a dish for the gods,” alluding to Cleopatra and her exotic beauty, her electric dynamism. Thus, their relationship begins on an exciting and romantic note. And like the relationship of Antony and Cleopatra, theirs ends in a downward spiral. However, this play and these characters never rise to the brilliance of Shakespeare’s allusion, and the potential import of Greg’s and Julia’s relationship falls into oblivion in the shuffle and muddle of the modern and the mundane.
To what extent this is the fault of the characters as Cahn writes them, the actors, or the direction is not clear. Nor does the intended arc of the play inspire or ignite a depth of response during Julia’s entire “talk” about women writers to “her audience” (us) as she describes how she meets Greg, the nature of their relationship, and why it grows dim. Somewhere, the play flatlines, and there is little movement, tension or conflict. This is true even during the flashbacks showing key moments in Greg and Julia’s coupling and breakup, perhaps more from the lack of energy in the writing than the talent of the actors and the director.
The play unfolds when celebrated writer and speaker Julia Reynolds arrives late, apologizes to her audience (us), and then, overcome by angst, is unable to continue delivering her scripted talk about women writers. Compelled to share the emotional impact of what she has just experienced, she extemporizes and indeed delivers a “talk” about women writers and success, sharing with us the choices she made and a love relationship that got away from her. The playwright uses flashbacks to introduce the character of Greg to illustrate key events in their relationship.
Perhaps the plot dynamic is too hackneyed and traditional. Julia on her way to finding herself meets charismatic professor Greg who becomes her writing mentor and lover. During the relationship, she evolves, finding herself and her career path, while Greg devolves, becoming more unhappy with himself as a failed writer who drinks to excess. Their relationship ends when Julia selects her career over her love for Greg, which has become destructive and unsatisfying for both of them. Greg elects to remain teaching at the university and Julia moves on.
In her talk Julia reveals that years later she visits Greg who has gotten married and has a family. His wife has helped him (though we know nothing of her happiness or their relationship) and he has stopped drinking and is satisfied to be who he is, a professor who has made a difference with the apparent support of a loving family. Julia has little in common with him and is bored after an hour, cutting short their reunion. She never sits down with his wife or child, who allow Julia and Greg to meet in private. Julia refers to Greg’s mocking tone when he suggests that possibly, she too, will marry and be happy one day after finding the right man. The implication is that she never will because she is not looking for that man; her career is her love. Is Greg being presumptuous, patronizing, belittling, bitter? Perhaps. Certainly, Julia is aware that Greg is ridiculing her choice of her career over him or any man, since she is not married – she is too busy being a success.
Upon the big “reveal” at the end, Julia is led to wonder aloud whether she made the right decision to leave the only man she ever loved. Though he was not right for her, though she has traveled the world, has a successful career and has had other relationships with interesting men, she will live with quetsions and thoughts of regret for the rest of her life. Should she have stayed with Greg and made a life for herself with him for good or ill? We are to glean from this that women “cannot have it all,” a successful career, marriage and family. In the play this is the way of the world and a bitter pill to swallow: for success in either, women must suffer to choose one or the other, while men can have both. As we know, real life is different for many, so the lesson for Julia seems dated.
In fact if this construct appears rather pat and contrived, it is, because the plot and characters are superficially realized. The message becomes political and the playwright delivers it with a sledgehammer, with the climactic revelation functioning as a convenient element in the service of Julia’s “regrets.” Unfortunately, Cahn’s shallow characterization of Greg fails to draw our empathy for him. It becomes Margo White’s task to fill in the gaps and make the connections to help us feel Julia’s loss and the world’s loss of this professor. White does the best she can, but there is little poetry or eloquence in these characters to elevate this beyond mere outlines of bodies. Call it a failure of the writing, less so of the direction, acting or execution of the production. Unless… I kept on thinking, there must be something more. So I went back to the original reference in Antony and Cleopatra.
If one follows the reference in its entirety, the countryman who makes the comment to Cleopatra says, “I know that a woman is a dish fit only for the gods, as long as the devil hasn’t prepared the meal.” He says this giving her the basket of figs with the asp which, moments later, she will use to commit suicide and join Antony in the afterlife. The countryman also states, “But devils cause a lot of trouble for the gods regarding their women. For every ten women the gods make, the devils ruin five.”
Following the reference’s logic to its conclusion, Julia has been ruined by the devils who have prepared her as a spoiled dish for Greg. The question is, who are the devils? Julia, the culture that makes it difficult for women to “have it all,” or Greg who has inspired her to a greatness where she no longer desires to be with him? Perhaps a combination of all three. Nevertheless, the reference doesn’t provide a fulfilling denouement or allow us to walk away with concepts that resonate, only ones that make us shake our heads and quickly move on.