Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Co-created by those two actors, Sun Mee Chomet and Jim Lichtscheidl, along with the play's director (and Jungle artistic director) Christina Baldwin, Dinner for One is based upon a twelve-minute-long comedy sketch written by English actor-writer Lauri Wylie back in the 1920s, and first performed as part of a comedy revue of bits and pieces compiled by Wylie in 1934. An eighteen-minute-long version was broadcast on German television in 1962. Its broadcast has become an annual New Year's Eve tradition in Germany, and later in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxemburg, South Africa, and Australia, making it (according to the Guinness Book of Records) the most frequently repeated broadcast in history. Yet, until the past few years it has been fairly unknown in the United Kingdom or the United States. It has been expanded by its co-creators into a beautiful one-act play.
Why is Dinner for One broadcast on (or near) New Year's Eve? The play is a paean to remembrance of the good times that are in our past, a bittersweet re-creation of people and events that made our life wonderful as we cycle into the unknown that lies ahead. It would seem a way for people, year after year, to reflect on all of that as the page turns from one year to the next. Moreover, the play takes place on New Year's Eve.
In a few brief sequences, we observe an elegant home with a large dining table center stage, though the table service is covered beneath a white gauze drape. James (Jim Lichtscheidl), a butler, rings a bell–typical of the playfulness of Dinner for One, we do not hear the sound, but we know it has been rung–and Miss Sophie (Sum Mee Chomet) haltingly descends a gracious staircase dressed all in black, a veil covering her hair and face. Not only is it New Year's Eve, but it is Miss Sophie's birthday. Each time, James tries to entice her to take the glass he offers and be seated at the table, but each time she turns and retreats back up the stairs.
After a brief pause, we return to the scene, but now the white drape is removed from the table. We learn that it is twenty years later and Miss Sophie's 90th birthday. James goes to tremendous effort and at last entices Miss Sophie to take a glass and be seated. The back wall of the dining room is replete with empty picture frames, giving the notion of beauty once observed and dear friends and family, the substance of which have all faded. Upon James's signal, a curtain parts and a large frame appears, within which a pianist and violinist are poised to provide musical accompaniment to diner party.
The party is a 90th birthday celebration, and Miss Sophie's four great admirers (and past loves) join her for the occasion. The only rub is that she has outlived them all. It falls on James to impersonate each in turn, taking on each man's voice, his mannerisms, make a suitable toast to the fair lady, and present his gift to Miss Sophie. The four are Toby, a great actor of the stage and a sot; the stern Admiral Von Schneider; Pomeroy, his profession (and most of his speech) unclear; and Winterbottom, a revered and highly romantic poet. Miss Sophie adores them all and they–as depicted by James, frantically going from chair to chair while also serving the courses and filling the goblets–all adore her.
Playing the part of each gentleman means that James drinks each of their glasses every time a toast is raised, so he becomes deliriously inebriated, making his already daunting task all the more challenging–and hilarious. A man becoming increasingly drunk, his speech and behavior becoming increasingly sloppy, is not usually my idea of great wit, and it may not be yours, but trust me when I say that between Lichtscheidl's scrupulous performance and the grace with which James and Miss Sophie interact, it truly is a display of wit that prompts hearty laughter. Similarly, a running gag about a bump in the rug upon which James trips every time he passes that point is the kind of bit that can easily become wearisome but not here: each incident is a fresh occurrence of that familiar stumble that becomes ever more brilliantly funny.
As the toasts are completed, a dance danced, a sly musical hall number involving a ship's wheel re-created, and gifts are opened, the party winds down. Miss Sophie opens her one remaining gift, which becomes a catalyst that transforms what has been a warm-hearted, high spirited comic lark into a heart-breaking mediation on remembrance; how it can cut like a shard of glass and lift us like a hot air balloon at one and the same time.
I have already praised Jim Lichtscheidl's wonderful comic performance as James as well as the four gentleman who live in Miss Sophie's memory. Sun Mee Chomet, as Miss Sophie, is no less remarkable. The majority of her dialogue is in the form of whimpers and giggles, as she interacts with her memories, but in the control of her voice, her facial expressions, and her posture, the actor creates the full sense of this woman and the rich life that has delivered her to the end of her ninetieth year. When she speaks in actual words, it is with the command of someone who has had the privilege of authority throughout her life and is grasping to rekindle the comfort that position has brought her.
Music director Emilia Mettenbrink has done lovely work arranging the musical accompaniments, drawn largely from the classical repertoire (excepting that giddy music hall turn) and aptly selected to match the changing moods throughout the play. A rotating roster of musicians performs, and at the performance I attended, pianist Lara Bolton and violinist Angela Waterman Hanson provided the dulcet tones.
Ora Jewell-Busche designed costumes, with a glorious gown for Miss Sophie, including an extravagant train that itself becomes an element of the story. Eli Sherlock's set creates a handsome room in a stately home, yet with the feel that, like Miss Sophie, its best days are behind it. Marcus Dilliard's lighting subtly draws focus to the details in movement and in the placement of John Novak's cleverly designed properties, which draw our responses to each passing moment. Jaime Lupercio's sound design provides clarity to the speakers, especially valuable in hearing Miss Sophie's subtle vocalizations that express so much.
In all of these elements–performance, design, music, and narrative–there is an underlying sense of fragility that requires a knowing hand that honors a collaborative venture such as this, and that reflects the contribution of director Christina Baldwin. Dinner for One is a precious work. Though I am a fair number of years away from turning ninety, it stirred feelings of gratitude for the life I have known thus far, as Miss Sophie feels the warm tendrils of memory bring exhilaration to what remains of her days. It is the kind of show I want to tell every one of my friends to see and hope they may invite me along to spend another hour in the delightful company of Miss Sophie and James.
Dinner for One runs through December 31, 2023, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please visit www.jungletheater.com.
Co-Creators: Christina Baldwin, Sun Mee Chomet, Jim Lichtscheidl; Director: Christina Baldwin; Music Director and Arrangements: Emilia Mettenbrink; Set Design: Eli Sherlock; Costume Design: Ora Jewell-Busche; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Designer: Jaime Lupercio; Props Design: John Novak; Stage Manager: John Novak; Assistant Director: Alison Ruth.; Technical Director: Julia Reisinger; Production Manager: Matthew Earley.
Cast: Dustin Bronson (Understudy for James), Sun Mee Chomet (Miss Sophie), Sheena Janson Kelley (Understudy for Miss Sophie), Jim Lichtscheidl (James).