Dinner at 8

High on the list of life's great mysteries, way up near "Why do we wait until a pig is dead to cure it?" and "Why do women sometimes shave off their eyebrows and then draw them back on?" is this one: "Why does dinner theater always suck so bad?"

On paper, dinner theater sounds spectacular. It's an entertainment hybrid that combines two of America's favorite pastimes, eating and storytelling, and gives people who don't like theater something to do while others are watching a play. It's a night out with "two-for-one" built right into it, because that buffet is included in the price of your ticket to The Girl From Oklahoma. And, let's face it, there are few performances that wouldn't benefit from a nice distracting slice of strudel.

Alas. There's something about dinner theater that always seems to spell doom. The food is usually cafeteria fare; the acting, typically reheated; the selections, always rehashed musical comedies. Apparently, sometime during dinner theater's relatively recent history, someone decided that sub-par emoting and banquet chicken were the standard, and "dinner theater" has been shorthand for "undercooked and overacted" ever since.

If dinner theater is to culture what Vanilla Ice is to musical integrity, at least it knows its place. Most such venues can be found in the 'burbs or on impermanent stages that can quickly resume their real lives as banquet halls and storage rooms. Mesa's Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre has been serving steaks and wholesome sing-alongs for four years now; Copperstate Dinner Theater wedged itself into a Glendale sports bar for more than two decades before relocating to the local dog track a couple years ago; and Peoria residents (as well as anyone else who likes to mix ham with hambone) will be glad to know that a new dinner theater with the geographically perplexingly name of Arizona Broadway Theatre will be hurling open its doors this coming September.

Although I'm not entirely sure why pairing food with performance always ends in indigestion, I can report emphatically that it does. Several dozen dinner theater visits over the years have convinced me that, if it's Annie Get Your Gun and there's eating involved, Miss Oakley will be tone-deaf and the veal will be gray. If your Neil Simon comedy involves tableside service, the play won't be terribly amusing, but the coq au vin will be hilarious. And if it's that peculiar hybrid known as murder mystery dinner theater -- or any form of interactive dinner theater, for that matter -- you can count on crummy food and annoying actors, seated right there at the table with you.

As awful as sitting through this dreck can be, I imagine the experience is worse for the actors who must emote to the sounds of clinking cutlery and drunken dessert orders. Looking for confirmation, I phoned my friend Deena, who paid off her student loans by shrieking her way through various musicales at the Carousel Dinner Theatre in Akron, Ohio. Sure enough, Deena confirmed my worst suspicions.

"Dinner theater is lousy," Deena told me, "because the audience acts like they're in their living room watching TV while they eat. It's hard enough to remember your lines and hit your marks without some dork commenting on your performance or yelling that he needs more biscuits. You try getting a performance out with that going on."

I decided that Deena was just bitter because she'd never made a go of it on the legitimate stage, and I was just settling down to write this essay when she e-mailed me. The subject line of Deena's e-mail was "And another thing," and her message was short and to the point.

"I meant what I said on the phone today," she wrote. "It's hard to perform an entire monologue while also trying to ignore the smell of brisket. But it doesn't help matters that people like you think it's really funny to trash an entire genre of performance before you even get to the theater. It wouldn't hurt if you guys put down your forks for once and listened."

I'd love to, Deena. Will you pay for my Metamucil?

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela