Food. Anxiety. Separately or together, they figure so prominently in our lives. Combined, why shouldn’t they form the meat of interesting drama, or comedy, or both? David Kelly’s new musical Anxiety Stew doesn’t really dig into this promising repast, though. Instead the show merely uses food as a touchpoint for a sequence of disconnected and mostly pointless musical numbers.
Ably performed by an admirably enthusiastic cast, the songs cover a variety of styles – oldies, country music, reggae, rap, punk, cookie-cutter pop – with lyrics that are sometimes funny or clever in a surface-y sort of way. But it’s all in the service of neither a story nor even a message.
Feather Rosenblatt (the game Nicole Pietrangelo), a crunchy-granola psychotherapist specializing in “food-related anxieties,” has offered a Groupon deal for new patients at just $5 for an initial session. One by one they arrive, but instead of bringing realistic food-related problems (anorexia, bulimia, overeating, body image issues, imagined food sensitivities) they present with fanciful or trivial woes created, it would seem, only as excuses for songs.
A recurring dream of swimming through the interior of a giant cannoli; a songwriter’s inability to compose lyrics about anything but hors-d’oeuvres; and a resort musician’s jealousy of the buffet that distracts tourists from his music don’t add up to a theme. Even more frustrating, the play leaves imagery that a real therapist might plumb for meaning unexplored.
If I counted right, four of the six new patients are musicians, a too-cheap way of touching off musical numbers. It reminded me of poets who are given to writing poems about writing poetry. Meanwhile, when the characters bring up serious subject matter, like health insurance, the songs and conversations remain isolated, as if merely reflecting what happened to be on the writer’s mind that day.
With all that, the performers try their best, revealing talent and energy as they belt out David Kelly’s songs and dance the snatches of Josephine Kelly’s solid choreography. Scott Duell as the cannoli-dreamer, and Alden Gagnon as Vomma (the name is an in-joke), the Wall Street quant who writes songs about hors-d’oeuvres, put their all into their silly numbers. Vomma’s number about deviled eggs is a funny one.
Mallory Campbell as a punk musician weirdly fixated on the absence of provolone cheese at Katz’s Deli leads a strong number, with a powerful voice and presence. Camilo Estrada is over-the-top convincing in two roles, a flashy rapper and a Cuban musician who sings in Spanish. I’d love to see his droll timing and hear his superb voice in a good show.
Jason Tyler Smith displays fine vocal chops as Feather’s tech-savvy assistant, whose song at the end interrupts a chanting circle attended by all the new patients. I couldn’t discern a clear point to this scene any more than any of the others, but I think he was insulting the patients by proclaiming the superiority of his Millennial generation. There’s also intermittent weirdness about Jews and kosher food, displaying what seems an incomplete understanding of both, and a bizarre introduction of the computer program Eliza, the famous 1960s attempt at a Turing machine. None of it makes any sense, even as absurdism.
The jury may still be out on whether a computer program can be a good therapist. But if Feather is the best we humans have got, bring on the machines. Anxiety Stew is at the Cherry Lane Theatre through June 17. For tickets visit the website or call 866-811-4111.