Cory Finley’s The Feast has an old-fashioned Gothic feel to it, despite being very contemporary and taking place in an instantly recognizable, urban setting. (Who, in a rental apartment, hasn’t heard strange noises coming from the plumbing at one point?). A string of taut two-character scenes, the play tells the story of Matt (Ivan Dolido), a painter (of art, not houses, as he tells a plumber in the first scene), who is either having a series of very strange, vaguely supernatural encounters with ancient and beautiful beings or is losing his mind. And whichever of those options is true, he’s probably losing his girlfriend as well.
Half the scenes take place between Matt and the girlfriend, Anna (Marlowe Holden), an ambitious management consultant, and these are resolutely realistic, first about the minutiae of their daily lives–why did she call the plumber and not tell him; how long is too long to brush one’s teeth; does Anna really have to go on her upcoming business trip–and then later about the widening fractures in their relationship: Anna’s confession that she had an affair with a colleague, Matt’s inattentiveness. The alternating scenes have a very different tone. Matt’s foil keeps shifting–a plumber, his therapist, his gallery owner, the colleague with whom Anna had the affair. All are played by the same actor (Donaldo Prescod) and all seem to have some sort of privileged, intrusive access to a part of Matt’s life: his Matt’s home, his private thoughts, or his relationship. Each has a vague aura of menace – or is that just Matt’s increasingly anxious perspective? Director Courtney Ulrich has smartly staged much of the piece with the actors just a little closer together than feels natural; there’s a growing sense of claustrophobia and invasiveness to the encounters.
We begin with the plumber. Anna has called him to deal with a “scream”-type noise that Matt mentioned was coming from their toilet. But Matt isn’t expecting any plumber, and he’s not quite sure he wants the noise to go away, either. That moment of ambivalence is the first inkling something’s not quite right, but it’s hard to say what. Maybe the plumber is a strange and somewhat creepy guy. Maybe he’s interrupting Matt in the middle of some very productive work. Maybe Anna’s being passive-aggressive in sending the plumber, and Matt’s reacting to that. Or maybe there’s something not quite right in his mind, or not quite right in their relationship? That ambiguity persists, in all his encounters with other men (as contrasted to the perfectly realistic domestic crisis in his relationships with Anna). Matt’s therapist seems to be acknowledging the existence of these ancient beings accessible through the toilet–or just picking up on Matt’s mood. Inspired, Matt paints what the gallery owner thinks is the best work of his career, a wall-size “Last Supper” of the titular feast–but then is prepared to destroy it when he thinks the gallery owner is telling him he roused angry spirits in depicting them. The alternation starts to feel a little predictable, and there’s a bit too much exposition packed into a short play, but the growing sense of dread is effective nonetheless–especially when it becomes clear someone is lying to Matt, and maybe his paranoia is at least a little bit justified.
The performances help to set up the dichotomy between the two parallel narratives, which works in the overall scheme of the piece, but also can feel a little flat. Each actor seems to pick a few dominant emotional notes and stick with them: Holden steely yet vulnerable at the same time; Dolido mixing fear and wonderment (and a little weaker when Matt is supposed to be angry and confrontational); Prescod perfectly reasonable yet vaguely sinister.
Still, the tension is maintained beautifully, and the ambiguity between breakdown and ghost story leads to a denouement, in a dark apartment with a storm brewing, that is genuinely scary and surprising. Given how short the piece is (under an hour), it creates an enveloping atmosphere of suspense.