The irreverent folks at Hydeware Theatre like to do guerrilla Shakespeare outdoors in city parks; last season for Edward Albee's Zoo Story they brought a city park -- complete with real sod -- indoors into a Washington Avenue loft. Anything to avoid acting on a conventional proscenium stage. Now, miracle of miracles, they've transformed the bleak, antiseptic Soulard Theatre into a warm, intimate restaurant.
Michael Blieden's Phyro-Giants! is yet another addition to that burgeoning genre, the "let's-sit-around-a-table-and-talk" play -- with this distinction: Earlier this season the HotHouse Theatre production of Omnium Gatherum also concerned people at a table, but in that mounting there existed the usual imaginary wall between viewer and eater; the audience could only drool as the actors partook. But the current Hydeware production is billed as "an interactive dining experience." Here you have the opportunity to arrive a little early, sit at a table and enjoy dinner. The playbill (which is more menu than program) promises food, drinks and talk. The food, catered by the Soulard Coffee Garden, looked inviting and delicious. The drinks were, well, drinks. (What can you do to a Bud Light?) It's the talk that shortchanges an otherwise intriguing evening.
And there's a lot of it -- talk, not intrigue -- despite the fact that the play itself runs only 60 minutes. "Do you want to talk about it?" one character asks another. (Allowing for the possible exception of The Miracle Worker, that overused question should have been banned from all drama decades ago.) Later we hear the more declarative, "I want to talk about it." In between those predictable lines the author treats us to such original phrases as "I'm like..." and "you know" and the ever-accentuated "Excuse me?"
The premise here is that two guys and two gals in their early thirties have accidentally converged for an impromptu meal in an upscale restaurant. One fellow is married, but the other three are still playing the field. As we begin to eavesdrop on their after-dinner chatter, they breeze through matters ethereal: ghosts, television psychics, reincarnation. But as the dinner wine begins to lower their guard -- and as you might expect from a playwright who used to work for Comedy Central -- it's not long before the conversation turns to more intimate matters: infidelity, Internet pornography and other revelations that one might be more prone to share with a stranger than a friend.
By hour's end what began as a seemingly shapeless evening turns out to have some symmetry after all. The author even tries, ever so haltingly, to emulate the creepiness of a thriller by M. Night Shyamalan.
It's fun to break the bounds of conventional theater. St. Louis is the better for having a group like Hydeware, which is ever thinking outside the (black) box. But a script that is all gossip and banter has palpable pitfalls. For starters, how do you sustain viewer interest when there's no movement? At what decibel level should the actors deliver dialogue that is intended to be conversational yet must be heard by everyone in the room? And how do the actors reveal their characters when what is written on the page is either too sketchy or too on-the-nose? One senses that director Pamela Banning has not addressed these challenges.
As the married diner, J C Pierce sets an appropriately understated tone that draws listeners into the dialogue, but Brian Hyde is about as subtle as Andy Kaufman. The two women -- the engaging Rebecca Jaycox and the more mysterious Noelle Santacruz -- try to resort to their own personal charms to override the thinness of the writing but too often are saddled with filler lines like, "Yeah." The most amusing performance comes from Ken Haller as the maitre d', who does not even appear in the play. Yet his presence in the restaurant makes the overall experience felicitous.
And ultimately, one would choose to attend this rare evening of bistro-theater for the originality of the experience. But if you do decide to partake, be sure to purchase the combo ticket that also includes the meal. All by itself, the nutrient-deficient Phyro-Giants! is hardly a main course.