Remember the first time you grasped the idea that some people are blind? Didn't you shut your bright-child eyes really tight -- didn't we all? -- and try to imagine how it might feel to walk around seeing nothing, nothing at all?
How about when you stuffed your little fingers in your ears to attempt to approximate a world without sound? From then, did you progress, as I'm sure I did, to the unthinkable young Helen Keller -- blind and deaf, without a clue how to connect to life beyond dark silence?
All these disturbing sense memories flood back in the first moments of a new play called "Not by Bread Alone." But I do mean just the first moments. Almost immediately, the feelings change to wonder, then to amazement, then to something tough but tender -- like awe.
The play, you see, is performed by Israel's Nalaga'at Theater, the world's only professional deaf-blind acting ensemble. According to Eliran Golan -- our waiter in the only dinner-theater that has ever made sense to me -- this is "a whole company of Helen Kellers."
He was talking in total darkness while serving a three-course meal in a temporary downtown restaurant called the Blackout. I'll explain.
Since 2007, Nalaga'at, which means Please Touch, has been creating theater at its center in Jaffa Port, next to Tel Aviv. There it also operates the Blackout restaurant, where the waiters are blind, and the Café Kapish, where servers are deaf.
The company is making its American debut at the NYU Skirball Center, through Feb. 3. For a hefty extra price, 40 theatergoers at a time can come early to eat in total darkness before the performances downstairs at a pop-up Blackout. The three-course meal is by Danny Meyer's Union Square Events, no less, and, if we're not disoriented enough by the visual sensory shutdown, wine is included.
At its least idealistic, certainly, the dinner offers a kind of voyeurism -- except that the French word, voyeur, means "one who looks." It is possible to see blind eating as just another kind of trendy immersion entertainment or the loathsome audience participation, a thrill ride as "real" as reality TV.
But if most theater is about empathy, the willingness to put oneself in someone else's skin, the meal before the play is no gimmick.
Walking into the black room single file, holding on with both hands to the shoulders in front of you, we are forced to have a trust we see onstage later with the actors. As Eliran helps me into a chair, I can't see and, even more scary, instructs my tablemates on how to fill the water glasses, I find myself trying to fill the visual void with nervous chatter. Somebody shut me up, please. Most of us feel around the plates and eat with our hands, though a few cling heroically to forks and knives. No matter how foolish we felt, nobody refused the bibs.
Touch, taste and smell take over as our guides to an inner world. It's a heightened sensual necessity that comes in handy when we go upstairs to see the play -- a series of scenes about the lives and dreams of the actors. Look how often the actors get around with their hands on one another's shoulders. And what about that smell of baking bread?
Bread is actually baked in "Not by Bread Alone," and the audience is invited to eat it with the cast after the 75-minute piece. Our first image of these people is comforting. They're sitting at a long wooden table, kneading dough and wearing chef hats like European bakers from an old photo.
At first, they are wearing featureless masks. Gently, an unobtrusive interpreter/helper (each actor has one) removes someone's mask. Or, touchingly, one person will take off someone else's. By the time the bread is out of the oven, we feel we know more than their faces. We know a bit about their power, their quirks, their history, their dreams, their terrors and often astonishing abilities.
There are 11 men and women of different ages, backgrounds and star quality. Just three can speak and with varying degrees of ease. The program tells us that most were born acutely deaf from an inherited disorder called Usher Syndrome, which also causes blindness, generally by adulthood.
Founder-artistic director Adina Tal, who conceived this piece over two years, created the company in 2002, after, she says, she reluctantly agreed to teach a drama workshop to a deaf and blind group. As she has explained, a new theatrical language developed "because they can't see each other, they can't imitate each other. So every action they make is very personal."
The piece has the feel of middle-European expressionism, with a surprisingly visual sense of gesture and rhythm. Drum beats separate the scenes. The actors feel the vibrations. Hebrew is translated in supertitles and by sign language. A couple slow dances. A lonely man finds a bride. A man on stilts pushes a baby carriage and two gentlemen clown irresistibly.
Obviously, no one worries about finding euphemisms for blind and deaf. Nor are hairs split about degrees of disability. Eliran, who performs in the company's children's play, is an albino born with very limited vision. He tells me that he and the other seamlessly supportive waiters built the room and memorized exactly where everything is.
The dinner is intended to force us to use and appreciate other senses. I can say that a pomegranate seed has never tasted so voluptuous. I also loved the squishy vegetables in the salad until I was told they were beets. That is not possible. I hate beets.
"Not by Bread Alone," NYU Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place, Manhattan. Tickets are $40-$75. Dinner and play cost $200. Post-performance discussions will be held at 4:30 p.m. Jan. 27 and Jan. 31 at 9:30 p.m. Phone 212-352-3101 or visit nyuskirball.org.