Milk 'n' Honey
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 24, 2007
Midway through Milk 'n' Honey, the five actors who comprise most of the play's cast leave the stage to dish out popcorn for the audience members. There's actually no dramatic reason for this burst of generosity, but it does seem like a friendly gesture (at the beginning of the show, actors walk from person to person offering candy as well). Unfortunately I didn't actually get any popcorn, and I note this fact not because I wanted some (I don't particularly like popcorn, to tell the truth) but because the careless way that this part of the show was executed reflected a deeper carelessness and self-indulgence that permeates just about every aspect of this project.
The idea of the piece, per the press release, is to look at "Americans, appetite, and the food we eat." My goodness, that's a lot to cover in a single evening of theatre. Milk 'n' Honey talks about the plight of immigrant workers, the plight of homeless people and others who forage through dumpsters looking for food and hoping to prevent waste, the plight of a scientist who specializes in enhancing or changing the flavors of commercial food products and then discovers that he's lost the ability to taste food himself, the plight of a woman with out-of-control diabetes and a compassion-free doctor on the case. Each of these subjects is inherently interesting and worth looking into, but none gets much in-depth examination here. Much, much more gets talked about instead—everything from our consumerist obsessions to how unaware we usually are of what the food we eat actually contains to how obnoxious head chefs can be—in what amounts to a series of scattershot performance art-y vignettes. The company has clearly worked hard to create this piece, but somewhere along the way they lost sight of what they were actually accomplishing. And so Milk 'n' Honey feels earnest but hugely self-indulgent.
One of the problems I had with the show is that it felt like almost every other Anne Bogart/Viewpoints-derived play I've ever seen: the particular subject matter seems to be beside the point, so long as the actors get to exercise their self-created gestural vocabularies, perform with verbatim detail unattributed interviews with unidentified people, and quickly transform their appearances to take on multiple roles, often with whimsical touches (there's a scene here that is, I think, supposed to be about kids putting on a school pageant about corn where all five actors are wearing makeshift silly corn costumes).
There's also a very gimmicky gambit: in addition to feeding the audience, there's a sixth actor on stage, all the way in the far back corner, where we can barely see him and easily forget about him, consuming an entire multi-course meal. The point of this eluded me; like most of the hard information imparted in the show, this bit lacks balance, reference, and context.
Some of what's depicted here is just bizarre. Are we really supposed to believe that the diabetic woman can find nothing in the supermarket that doesn't contain sugar or carbs besides black beans?
Ellen Beckerman, a director whose work I have greatly admired in the past, is the director, co-producer, and co-author; the cast includes the very proficient Shawn Fagan, Vaneik Echeverria, and Adam Rihacek, and the less impressive Aysan Celik and Signe V. Harriday. Harriday has the evening's most grotesque assignment, having honey poured all over her body at the play's finale. Yuck: I felt sticky just watching this, and I was startled by what seems like an appalling waste of food.
And it's not the only example of waste in Milk 'n' Honey, by the way: as I was exiting, I noticed a good deal of the sloppily distributed popcorn all over the floor.