Hard to swallow

One can only marvel at the actorly calculations driving Michael Cheek as he chokes down yet another donut in his portrayal of Otto, a slobby, histrionic, morbidly obese, unemployed comedian.

The second and third acts of The Food Chain are totally dependent on the comedic Cheek’s verbal and physical timing, and yet you couldn’t make the part more challenging.

The actor’s character must aggressively woo his former lover, the self-obsessed male model Serge (played to the hilt by Bray Creech) — all while Cheek wears a fat suit, downs entire bottles of Yoo-hoo and consumes snack cakes in a single bite.

And, more than that, he’s got to be funny doing it.

This is the sort of actor’s dilemma that dramatist Nicky Silver loves to set up. Silver make things uncomfortable for his characters in hopes that the audience, in turn, will grow uncomfortable.

The playwright not only wants you to feel awful watching Otto commit slow suicide by food, he wants you to disdain — but also understand — the polite and even reasonable vanity of Serge. He wants you to absorb the confused, anorexic desperation of professional poet Amanda (a wonderfully mercurial Kelly Christiansen) as she pines for her husband, Ford (Greg Kemp, in a role with almost no lines, action or reaction), who’s been away “working” for two of their three weeks of marriage.

Then there’s intentionally bewildering Bea (Sandra Beckham, in a worthy take on the role), a crisis counselor whose life was nearly destroyed when her husband died, even though she didn’t really care for him all that much.

Theater critics have called The Food Chain shocking — but that’s inaccurate. Rather, it desperately wants to be shocking — as well as funny, insightful and touching, all at once.

From time to time, it succeeds in this scattered motivation. However, most of Silver’s work is so filled with ever-so-slightly altered cliches that the play gives up few true surprises, its sole “message” the decidedly predictable observation that the pursuit of beauty is an addiction.

Thankfully, director Bernie Hauserman seems to have been very aware of this flaw in tackling a local production of The Food Chain; the script’s inherently lame social message is offset by over-the-top performances from an unquestionably solid cast.

Still, the play’s dialogue-based humor frequently fails completely. Despite the taboo topics that provoke the punchlines, the comedic setups are all too obvious.

At one point, Otto, the butt (no pun intended) of the fat jokes, threatens to shoot himself; only moments later, he places a bagel around the barrel of the gun as he goes off to shoot Ford instead. (In an edgier version of The Food Chain, Otto ultimately does off himself.) The play floats along, its vaguely stereotypical characters almost impossible to care about.

Ultimately, Silver’s “shocking” script is no more than a badly seasoned sitcom adapted for the stage. Only the chemistry of the local cast keeps things palatable.

The Food Chain finishes its run at 35below (35 Walnut St., behind Asheville Community Theatre) with shows at 9 p.m. Thursday, May 20 through Saturday, May 22. Tickets cost $8. For reservations and more information, call 254-1320.

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