Over its nearly seven-year history, Windy City Playhouse has made a name for itself with uniquely immersive plays. Most memorable were productions of “Southern Gothic,” set at a 1960s cocktail party where the audience was allowed to move around the set as the hidden secrets of four couples in the show played out; and Mart Crowley’s landmark gay play, “The Boys in the Band,” which positioned the audience in and around the drama as a group of friends gather for a birthday party.
Windy City’s newest production, “A Recipe for Disaster,” is a wildly different addition to this growing list, giving new meaning to the term dinner theater. The fast-moving farce, a collaboration from Chicago chef Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill, Topolobampo), artistic director Amy Rubenstein and associate artistic director Carl Menninger, includes a menu of tastings that stars alongside the capable cast directed by David H. Bell.
The unfolding restaurant hijinks, which move at a breakneck speed, are inspired by Bayless’ real-life experiences. Bayless is no novice when it comes to theater collaborations. In 2012 and 2014, he teamed with Lookingglass Theatre for “Cascabel,” a story-meal combo about food’s capacity to change lives.
“A Recipe for Disaster” begins in the lobby bar of The Contumacious Pig (contumacious, as in “stubbornly disobedient” or more to the point, ahem,“pig-headed”), an up-and-coming eatery hosting an influencer night in hopes of upping its online profile. Audience members — serving as the influencer crowd — mingle with Loren and Kiki (Kierra Bunch and Carley Corelius, respectively), two self-serving, opportunistic and very funny social media influencers, as restaurant manager Shelley (Emma Jo Boyden) scurries around putting out fires.
Once seated inside The Contumacious Pig (in the lower level of Petterino’s restaurant on Dearborn) sturm and drang are on the menu along with Bayless’ plates of tasty small bites and wine tastings.
“I heard this is better than Frontera Grill,” Loren confides to several audience members.
Miffed over a laudatory profile of the restaurant’s sous chef, Jude (Ben Page), the restaurant’s chef is a no-show; and the whole pig, a mainstay of the menu, also is missing, and the illegal menu stand-in — a pig minus a USDA stamp — proves to be problematic thanks to a nosy health inspector (Ryan Reilly) prowling the premises.
Meanwhile, as a flustered Jude steps into the missing chef’s shoes, his confidence needs a boost from girlfriend Shelly and line cook Iggy (Alex Morales) and his bottles of “vitamins.” (“Feel the soul of the soup,” Iggy councils.) Adding to the chaos, a competing restaurant has sent a spy — a lurking intern namd Boris (Ian Maryfield) — who is up to no good.
All the performers skillfully ratchet up the choreographed craziness as the story unfolds, but it is juggler and acrobat Daniel Trinidad as busboy Felix who steals the show as he scurries about trying to hide that darn pig from the health inspector. His role requires some fancy cavorting around the set replete with flying saucepans and some dangerous juggling made to look easy.
As is typical with a farce, it’s a head-spinning experience with, in this case, action taking place in several locations at once — in the open kitchen, a storeroom, the restroom and among the audience. The audience, seated at small tables, is encouraged to move around to catch all the action but to return to their seats at the sound of a gong for the next course. The set-up seems a bit awkward for all the moving about.
Bayless’ menu, an interesting mix of flavors, begins with pre-dinner bites (roasted dates stuffed with smoky gorgonzola and pita chips with hummus, tomatoes and olives) and a tequila-based cocktail. The dinner menu includes a wild mushroom soup (beware the Malort!), herb pasta with crab and artichokes, and a surprising potato creation that saves the day for the restaurant known for its pork dishes. The dessert offering, an avocado-chocolate mousse, serves up a delightful end to the evening.
With its exaggerated, ridiculous and absurd situations, comedic farce can be an acquired taste and “A Recipe for Disaster” is no different. So, if you’re looking for a relaxing evening of theater this may not fit the bill. This is nonstop, hilarious bread and circus hijinks dialed up to 11.
Note: For COVID-19 protocols and safety measures, visit the theater’s website.