Chris Murray

Hors d'Oeuvres

Stark Raving Theatre at the Coho, 2257 NW Raleigh, 232-7072, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm, through August 14, $10-18

Derrida still hasn't written a summer blockbuster and Foucault may have killed the author, but he sure as hell didn't see The O.C. coming. For every tweed-clad academic, peeling back infinite layers of the simulacrum, there is a Road Rules bus packed with kids who don't care. Let's face it, postmodern theory has not proved very effective at entertaining the masses.

Enter Wade McIntyre, whose play Hors d'Oeuvres serves up generous portions of doubt to anyone who thinks deconstruction should be left to those with elbow patches on their cardigans. Bridging amusement and intellect, this comedy about a high society dinner party gone wrong largely avoids the opposing pitfalls of slapstick schlock and heady sermonizing. In two acts, it moves from a comedy of manners to a dark commentary on the failing of words and the people who use them.

A smart script makes it possible, but Stark Raving Theatre's well-rounded cast makes it happen. Julie Starbird plays Ms. Seymour, a crab cake serving, neurotic literary critic obsessed with impressing her dinner guests, publisher Mrs. Douglas (Melody Bridges) and the incoherent Senator Douglas (Tim Hill). Seymour's book deal hangs in the balance, but as the evening continues, far greater stakes emerge.

Ms. Seymour's depressed little sister, Clara (Erin Matley), invites a mysterious date who arrives an hour early and is dead set on revealing that "the art of conversation is the manifestation of the fear of death." The presence of this sharp-tongued provocateur, Charles Algernon Swinburne (played by Neal Starbird, and no relation to the poet), ensures that Martha Stewart could pull off a more comfortable soiree in a federal correctional facility. Things get worse. Clara doesn't even show up, she's too busy delivering soliloquies on death and her grammar fetish.

By the second act, someone might have been murdered, characters are becoming increasingly aware that they are in a play with a pre-determined ending, language itself is beginning to breakdown and the dinner isn't even in the oven. You might not get a chance to have this much postmodern fun again until Jean Baudrillard rooms with Hillary Duff and Wilford Brimley in the Surreal Life 2015. RYAN DIRKS