'Queen of the Night' and more: Dinner theater back in big way

From left, Erika Nguyen, Anna Kichtchenko and Katherine

From left, Erika Nguyen, Anna Kichtchenko and Katherine Crockett in "Queen of the Night" at the Diamond Horseshoe supper club in the Paramount Hotel. (Credit: BFAnyc.com / Matteo Prandoni)

Appetites for theater vary through the years, even through the seasons. The hunger I don't think I saw coming, however, is the desire again to be fed -- I mean really fed -- while consuming plays and musicals.

Seriously. Dinner theater is back, but not the kind that flourished in the '70s with meat of undetermined origin and fluffy comedies.

No, the new dinner theater is hip and even swanky. At its most extreme, it can have prices up to $525, for an "ultimate" ticket to "Queen of the Night," downstairs at the Paramount Hotel in the lavishly rehabilitated environment that was the Diamond Horseshoe supper club in the '40s.

This is an elaborate three-hour bacchanal of theme-park decadence, an erotic circus where roasted piglets on spits and huge baskets of whole lobsters are served compliments of someone with the title of director of food performance.

Just closed after a long run is "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812," a luscious, ambitious, serious lark of a musical that an audacious talent named David Malloy based on a short slice of "War and Peace." The self-described "electropop" Tolstoy opera was a huge hit in 2012 at Ars Nova in Hell's Kitchen, then built itself an elaborate pop-up Russian supper club in a tent in the meatpacking district before re-creating the red-velvet environment in a tent in Times Square.

We sat at little tables and were served surprisingly good Russian food and vodka before curtain and at intermission while being transported to a Moscow club that, according to director Rachel Chavkin, felt both contemporary and back in Tolstoy's world. "The ideal was to combine all these things to serve the play but also to make a really delicious experience."

Why the food? "David and I really take the idea of hosting seriously," Chavkin told me in a recent phone interview from England, where she is directing a new production of "Catch 22." (It has no food, she said, "just war.")

"David comes from a big Latvian family, and I think they feed guests until they burst. We both just love throwing parties. Theater is no different. We're inviting people into our homes and we want the places to feel inviting."

She believes it's all part of a "shift towards experience" in the culture. This certainly includes "Sleep No More," the long-running immersive show loosely based on "Macbeth."

The creators of this site-specific environmental extravaganza belong to a London group called Punchdrunk, which, along with New York producers, meticulously decorated a 90-room fake hotel, called the McKittrick, from a former warehouse in the far west stretches of Chelsea. People -- should we call them theatergoers? -- follow the action up and down stairs and around dark hallways while wearing spooky white masks suggesting commedia dell'arte and the orgy partygoers in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut."

When I wandered the rooms in 2011, the adventure began with an optional drink in a cozy cabaret/speak-easy. But now the "hotel" has added a restaurant next door, the Heath, serving British food and offering a pre-theater fixed-price meal. I cannot imagine eating anything, much less English food, before beginning the dash through five floors of history. Obviously, however, somebody wants to eat.

This was probably just part of the impulse at "The Pig, or Václav Havel's Hunt for a Pig," which closed last night downtown in a production by the company 3-Legged Dog. The play, an English adaptation of the 1987 work written by the dissident playwright-turned-Czechoslovakian president, reportedly was about Havel's desperately trying to find a pig. Meanwhile, pulled-pork sandwiches were served.

I'm not at all sure how I feel about the need to consume simultaneously on so many different levels. I'm not even happy that theatergoers can bring drinks into Broadway houses.

But clearly, eating and watching -- and watching and eating -- is sneaking into the theatergoing experience like popcorn at the movies. Where do we place the blame or, conversely, whom do we thank?

There are still some thriving conventional dinner theaters on Long Island. But obviously, we are a world away from the time I spent a week visiting the flourishing dinner theaters in and around Chicago. They had such evocative names as the Shady Lane Farm Playhouse, where I remember little more than being served a fish with an olive in its eye, and the Drury Lane Evergreen Park. For some reason -- really, I prefer not to know -- the sound of an offstage toilet flushing was frequently a source of hilarity in these productions.

In those days, the phenomenon was so popular that national theater administrators called it the fastest-growing type of theater in the country. Actors Equity had a brand-new dinner theater contract that defined true dinner theaters as places where the customer was served supper at a table and watched the play from the same seat. This was in contrast to institutions that served the meal in one room and the theater in another.

That tradition continues today with "Tony n' Tina's Wedding," which began in 1985 and has just been revived yet again, describing itself as the "all-inclusive evening of dinner, dancing & celebration." People pretend they're at a big Italian wedding. First they watch the ceremony at a high school in midtown, then they follow the "bridal party" to a Times Square restaurant. If I have my history correct, the nuptials of Tony and Tina were the first in a parade of pretend funerals, bar mitzvahs, christenings, whatever, that have offered faux-family life markers for decades.

I prefer to savor the parallel growth of cabaret/supper clubs and the new dinner theaters. The luxe Cafe Carlyle has been presenting first-rate cabaret for years, but now we have the often-thrilling Joe's Pub downtown and, right under Broadway's Studio 54, the excellent 54 Below. A group of veteran Broadway producers opened this handsome, intimate club in 2012 and has been presenting quality food and cabarets by all kinds of enticing theater talents and themes. On Thursday, there will be a concert revival of "The Act," a virtually forgotten Kander-and-Ebb flop that starred Liza Minnelli in 1977.

I asked Chavkin if she saw the connection between these supper clubs and her kind of multiple-nutrient innovations. She said she felt closer to a club in Glasgow, Scotland, called A Play, a Pie and a Pint. "It's similar to an idea you'll find all around the UK," she said. "There is a lot of theater work in bars and restaurants, sometimes just readings, but they are places of social congregation."

Still, she is hardly too cool to remember fondly that her father would take her to an old-time dinner theater in Washington, D.C., where she grew up. "The food was so heavy and there was too much of it, with heat lamps on the pot roasts," she said, laughing, "but I loved it."

Similarly, she trusts that "no one ever came to see 'Great Comet' for the food." It's the combination platter that, once again, appeals.