The Little Lake Theatre Company's production of Tina Howe's self-conscious 1979 comedy The Art of Dining is a bit of a frozen fish camouflaged in a heavy sauce: an uneven play in an uneven presentation.
Make that four fish. Set in the kitchen and dining room of a tiny upscale restaurant, The Art of Dining takes itself far more seriously than it takes food, which it flings about as a metaphor with mixed degrees of success as it blends the tales of the owners and three sets of diners.
The most solidly satisfying is that of an epicurean couple steeped in sensuality: food as sex and vice versa. The very suggestiveness of the gustatory pleasures that await send them into "menu-gasm." Claire Fraley and Bruce Crocker infuse the pair with a quirky charm -- they're silly, but so amiably matched. Dinner with them would be eventful and fun.
It's more difficult to figure out a trio of female friends. Zilda Alvez, Lisa Hoffman and Debra Humphrey are absolutely hilarious when first on stage, bantering about wines and pronunciations thereof. But then not one of them knows how to hold a glass of white wine (by the stem, not the bowl). Mere pretentiousness? The banter continues promisingly as each covets the other's choice of food, then devolves into increasingly unappetizing forays into issues of body image.
By turns frightening and mystifying, the third tale pairs a highly strung -- and supposedly anorexic -- author with a possibly amorous (i.e., bumblingly predatory) publisher, the likable Dave James. As the wannabe writer, Nikki McCrea seems to compensate for the lack of an obvious eating disorder by turning up the neurosis dial to "11" on the shrill scale. Her character's story involves by far the darkest of the evening's various food obsessions, but it tends to inspire disgust rather than pathos.
Allison Cahill and Art DeConcillis (who also directed) portray the hyper and hopeful restaurant owners. She's the chef, and he's so worried about their debts and the future that when he's not working the front of the house, he compulsively eats the potential profits. The comedy in this can be difficult to aim accurately, and the script doesn't help by slapping on an unrealistic ending rather than a satisfying conclusion.
On second thought, forget the frozen fish. Ultimately, The Art of Dining is rather like a restaurant meal: a bunch of component parts of varying ambition and realization, with little unifying sense of harmony. Enjoy some of it, and put the rest in a doggie bag.
The Art of Dining continues through May 19. Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive (off Route 19), Canonsburg. 724-745-6300 or www.littlelake.org