- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2003

Nothing says “happy holidays” quite like simulated sex acts on the stage. Woolly Mammoth takes the far less traditional approach to seasonal revelry with its pitch-dark, pitch-perfect “Cooking With Elvis,” a dysfunctional family comedy by Lee Hall, who wrote the charming 2001 film “Billy Elliott.”

You think your family’s wacky and insanity-inducing? They are rank amateurs compared to the Northern English clan portrayed in “Cooking With Elvis.” First off, there’s Jill (Kimberly Gilbert, a real find), a pudgy 14-year-old whose diet consists of rancor and chocolate pudding. She’s obsessed with cooking (two peppy, stagehand chefs, Tiffany Garfinkle and Abby Wood, assist her every move) exotic and arcane cuisine like figs wrapped in rose petals and roasted pig stuffed with live birds.

Jill has taken to her spatula as a way of escaping her home life, which, frankly, reeks. Dad (Rick Foucheux) left a successful career to become an Elvis impersonator. An accident has left him in a wheelchair and incapable of speech (“he’s a cabbage,” one character burbles), but from time to time he pops up in a cheesy flashback to perform songs from The King’s oeuvre. Mr. Foucheux portrays Elvis not as the whirly-hipped menace from “The Ed Sullivan Show” but as a paunchy, pill-popping bubba who finishes off “Burnin’ Love” with a dumpy, middle-aged split.

Mam (Jennifer Mendenhall), is a variation on the Patsy character from “Absolutely Fabulous,” a booze-guzzling lush desperately trying to hang on to the beauty and sexuality of her youth. She’s in great shape — eating disorders have a way of keeping gals trim — but there is something more than faintly ludicrous about Mam traipsing around in black vinyl bustier dresses and matching boots, miniskirts and shirts with peekaboo cutouts.

Mam has kept her extracurricular sexual romps to herself, until the play’s catalyst arrives — Stuart (Daniel Frith), a baker for whom the term “goes with the flow” is insufficient. Stuart drifts into an affair with Mam, then moves in, before making the moves not only on Jill but on Dad also.

“Cooking With Elvis” is not for the prudish. There are graphic depictions of sex acts of every stripe, and Mr. Hall seems to take bratty delight in pushing the envelope. The combination of fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches (Elvis’ favorite), X-rated sex, eating disorders, alcoholism, pop music, and the rigors of dealing with the disabled would be enough to make you queasy, but Mr. Hall and director Tom Prewitt keep this kitschy comedy grounded through the characters.

As Mr. Hall demonstrated with “Billy Elliott,” he has an affinity for young people. His Jill is superbly etched, a seemingly drab daughter who glistens with intelligence, nerve and adolescent defiance. Miss Gilbert makes Jill her own, giving the character a precocious knowingness, tempered by all the sputtering emotions of youth.

And Mam may be a bit daft, but she’s not pathetic, especially as played by Miss Mendenhall. Her Mam is not a stereotypical oversexed older woman but, rather, someone who doesn’t want to give up living. Mr. Foucheux, avoiding cliche in his depiction of the disabled, adds one more indelible character to his roster of agile clowns as Dad.

The most interesting and troubling aspect about “Cooking With Elvis” is its commentary on food. To Mam, food is the enemy — not eating is a way she can control her waning sex appeal. To Jill, food is life — excitement, passion, creativity and self-expression all rolled into one.

Food is not only demonized and idealized in the play, it is endlessly discussed and ingested. It becomes the main character, the appetite no one can control or totally ignore. “Cooking With Elvis” is ultimately not about sex or The King. It is about how food is not simple sustenance anymore. Its meaning goes far beyond eating and almost into the realm of perversion — food as fetish.

And that is far more disturbing in the long run than seeing flesh and fantasy on stage.

***

WHAT: “Cooking With Elvis” by Lee Hall

WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre at the Kennedy Center’s AFI Theater

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 11

TICKETS: $24 to $39

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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