The Flea’s resident acting company, the Bats, provides friendly process-driven theater with its new piece “Seating Arrangements,” only nominally adapted from Karen Blixen’s short story, “Babette’s Feast.” Like a lot of intensely collaborative work, the play is both inviting and maddeningly obtuse, relying on the audience to perceive and participate rather than analyze or evaluate. The result is exactly as much as the sum of its parts: no more, unfortunately, but certainly no less.
“Seating Arrangements” is a party. Specifically, it’s a dinner party to which the formally attired actors welcome you as you enter via the stage of the Flea. Everyone passes a horseshoe-shaped table arrangement around which various audience members are seated, while a violinist (Sylvia Mincewicz) plays politely in a corner.
As things shift into gear, we are welcomed to the show by lines from Blixen’s short story, but those quickly fall by the wayside as the actors begin to break things down. Two guests complain they don’t understand the highfalutin’ language their friends are using, so they step in to start a new thread — now we’re in a different moment, a more down-to-earth story. That changes quickly, too.
As the play progresses, the story itself just gets frustrated and leaves, to be replaced for a while by political discussion (further simulating the dinner-party experience). One actor hates the fact Donald Trump is building in Soho; another wants immigration reform; a third is passionately in favor of gay marriage.
It’s an interesting idea — politics at the table, of course! — but it comes with two unattractive side effects.
First, since we have nothing else to latch onto, it’s possible just to assume the play is about lefty preachiness and go away annoyed. The reason it’s easy to do that is the second problem: Though they all argue different issues, these people don’t actually disagree, or apply intellectual rigor to their emotional arguments. If we’re going to get an angry plea for a national health-care system, let’s hear a staid argument from a Second Amendment advocate next, just to add some spice.
The play recovers from these annoyances, thankfully. There’s the music to consider, for one thing — the actors sound like they’re making up most of the words spoken here (at the perf reviewed, cast member Bobby Moreno memorably rapped in time to an obnoxious catcall from the audience). So it comes as a surprise when they pick up on a pretty-sounding line of dialogue and start to sing it.
It’s an oddly satisfying conclusion to the unorthodox work. It would be difficult to argue that any of this play’s elements are essential to its existence (except that their exclusion would make the 70-minute piece even shorter). But the performers’ attitude is so warm and open it’s hard not to join them as they flit airily from one subject to another.
The use of the Blixen story is totally perfunctory (that tale and its famous film adaptation are rhapsodically gustatory; there’s no food at all here), but there’s a different kind of buffet available here if you’re willing to indulge this show’s creators.