NEW YORK -- The Playbills should include menus this season. In theaters around town, Italian food, Jewish food, French food, junk food and yuppie food are central to the settings and action. It's not the first time food has been a supporting player on stage, but there is more of it now.
This is not some proper cup of tea in the drawing room or a musical glass of Champagne, but copious quantities of food. Dinner for the cast and, sometimes during intermission, for the stage crew. Hunger pangs for the audience.
For the playwright, the food provides an expedient yet relevant and often funny way to identify an ethnic group or segment of society. Its universality makes it easily understood.
"Is anyone still hungry? Does anyone want more?" is the first spoken line in "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," by Terrence McNally.
Chloe, one of the four characters in this Off-Broadway drama, set in a beach house on Fire Island over a Fourth of July weekend, continues, chirpingly: "I've got eggs, bacon, bagels, Sara Lee, Entenmann's, fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee, decaf (Colombian water processed), Special K, English muffins, French muffins, Dutch muffins, German muffins, Hello?"
She plies the others with coffee, muffins and drinks. In the second act, she grills hamburgers on stage, the tempting aroma drifting into the audience as the lights dim after intermission.
"For me, Fourth of July weekend and food are inseparable," Mr. McNally said in a telephone interview. "Besides, when people get together they are often eating, not just sitting around. In this play, the emphasis Chloe places on the particulars of the food is her way of showing she cares about the others."
It's not the first time Mr. McNally has created characters who cook to show that they care. "Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune" was about a waitress and a short-order cook who, at one point, demonstrated his skills on stage in making a Western omelet.
"That he takes the time to dice the vegetables fine and saute them first, which is the way a Western omelet should be made, is an extra gesture of love," Mr. McNally said.
In "Frankie and Johnny," the recent film based on the play, the chopping, slicing, grilling and sandwich-making is even more graphic, suggesting a "Babette's Feast" in a luncheonette.
In "Breaking Legs" by Tom Dulack, a comedy at the Second Stage on the Upper West Side, the setting is an old-fashioned Italian restaurant in New England.
As the action unfolds, so does dinner, from antipasto to dessert. Mr. Dulack wrote the menu along with the dialogue. And every night the stage manager, Elliott Woodruff, comes up with the food, mostly from a nearby restaurant.
Tearing a page from a different cookbook, each act of "Beau Jest" by James Sherman, playing through March at the Lambs Theater on West 44th Street, takes place at a table where a Jewish meal is served.
Miriam Goldman's noodle kugel is so central to the girl-traps-boy plot that at intermission, portions of kugel -- sometimes several dozen portions -- are sold in the lobby ($1, with raisins and cinnamon).
Earlier this season, Jean Stapleton did a 27-performance turn as Julia Child in "Bon Appetit," an imaginary demonstration, set to music, of how to cook a French chocolate cake.
As a culinary tour de force, it was no match for the apple strudel that actor Paul Roebling prepared from scratch on stage in 1968 in "The Four Seasons" by Arnold Wesker.
During "Tubes," 90 minutes of raucously inventive avant-garde satire performed by Blue Man Group, an energetic deadpan threesome, one member of the audience is invited on stage to participate in an attempt at a serious dinner party.
Twinkies and Jell-O are served, delivering the kind of irreverent statement about modern food that the characters make about art at another point, as they spit paint-filled gum balls onto canvas.
Marshmallows are also tossed out into the seats and are consumed as eagerly as the muffins pitched into the audience at the beginning of "Nicholas Nickleby" several years ago.
Never mind that those muffins were a bit dry: "Nicholas Nickleby" lasted nine hours, so there was good reason to stock up. "Tubes" is over in an hour and a half, and what happens to most of the food -- the Cap'n Crunch cereal, gum balls, marshmallows and Jell-O chewed, extruded, mangled and sprayed -- is not intended to encourage the appetite.
"Blue Man is taking a jaunt through the pop culture landscape, so we would be remiss if we didn't include food," said Matt Goldman, one of the three players who make up the mute persona of Blue Man.
Another example of how seriously Blue Man Group takes the matter of contemporary food production is the fact that the many corrugated plastic tubes coiled and dangling around the theater are a type approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use with food.
"They are the same kind of tubes used to produce junk food," said Chris Wink, another performer. Whether the audience notices or not, the players find it intensely satisfying.
Whether the food is edible is beside the point. "The food we grew up with, like Cap'n Crunch cereal, was not about nourishment but about its physical properties," Mr. Wink said. "To our generation it was never a food but a sound, a crunch."
Some of the food in "Tubes" would impress Chloe, the striving, label-conscious suburbanite in "Lips Together, Teeth Apart." The marshmallows" chewed into abstract sculpture were actually made of goat cheese in early performances of "Tubes," but the expense sent the group seeking a substitute. Cream cheese is now used.
And the Jell-O molds are made each day by none other than Glorious Food, a top New York catering company. Mr. Wink met Phil Stanton, the other member of the trio, at Glorious Food when they were working there as waiters several years ago.
Now, in between preparing Champagne aspic for people like Brooke Astor, Jean-Claude Nedelec, an owner of Glorious Food, has some of his staff members mixing up molds for Blue Man. He does it as a favor to his former employees and is listed on the program as "Jell-O Consultant."