For most, the only anguish associated with eating out is paying the bill.
But for the characters in "The Art of Dining," the experience stirs sexual appetites, eating disorders and memories of childhood traumas.
Premiering tonight at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre, the 90-minute dark comedy focuses on the goings-on at a new gourmet restaurant where food becomes a vehicle for self-revelation.
The play opens on a young, eccentric couple, Cal and Ellen, who have given up a secure livelihood to become restaurateurs. Transforming their huge Victorian living room into the Golden Carrousel -- a dining hall with a merry-go-round motif -- they serve elegant cuisine "with a French flair."
Seated at the first table is an overindulgent couple, Paul and Hannah Galt, who never really communicate until they are handed menus. Ordering turns into sexual foreplay as they ponder their choices, reaching climax when they decide on their final selections.
The second couple, writer Elizabeth Barrow Colt and book publisher David Osslow, meet for the first time over dinner.
Shy, nervous and nearsighted, young Elizabeth's inability to enjoy a meal is played against David's overeating. Between courses, she recants a childhood of hiding uneaten food at the dinner table and of a melodramatic mother who tried to kill herself in the kitchen.
The third set of diners is three women out for a birthday celebration. Tensions flare when the svelte birthday girl turns out to be a party pooper who refuses to eat because she's on a diet.
It is only when the three engage in the age-old female bonding ritual of gossiping over good food that animosities and diets dissolve.
While the seven diners confront their demons, mayhem runs rampant in the kitchen.
Ellen is overwhelmed by the work. She is also miffed at Cal's nasty habit of inadvertently eating the food when feeling stressed.
But just as food divides them, it is food that eventually brings these strangers together over a magnificent dessert.
The quirky script, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tina Howe and originally produced in 1979 as a collaboration between New York producer Joseph Papp and the Kennedy Center in Washington, was selected by director Kasi Campbell, general manager of Smith Theatre.
"It's hard to find a comedy that has meat on the bones, something to say," she said. "This has substance."
The offbeat production -- sizzling with dual conversations, physical humor and clever staging -- presented several obstacles for the cast and crew.
To lend a flavor of authenticity, gourmet food from a gourmet restaurant will be imported for each show, courtesy of Cafe Normandie in Ellicott City.
The restaurant's chef, Glenn Spindler, also gave two of the actors a crash course on slicing and serving, and preparing the dessert -- flaming crepes suzette.
"He showed them how to keep fingers out of the way so not to get cut, how to slice the meats, present them on the plate, serve them and use the proper utensils in the right spot," said Gil South, who plays the restaurant owner.
"There is a difference between fine dining and eating out. And we pointed that out."
But to perfect the art of dining, the actors first had to perfect the art of eating.
"They've been practicing on bread and Jell-O," the director said. "They got used to timing when they could chew and when they could swallow and still get their next line out."
They've also spent weeks working on the unconnected dialogue, where characters ramble on, never stopping to listen to what their companions are saying. One scene plays like a three-ring circus when all seven diners conduct seven separate conversations at the same time.
"Many of the actors said this was the hardest play they had to memorize because the characters go off in to their own world," Ms. Campbell said.
"It was very difficult to mesh their self-absorbed comments that have nothing to do with other characters' dialogues. They all make sense, but they only connect sporadically, before going off into their own world again."
Time was equally spent on sight gags. One of the funniest moments -- a plate-swapping scene in which each of the three women tries to lay claim to the entrees served -- "took hours to get right," Ms. Campbell said. "There were lots of broken dishes and smashed fingers."
The crew also had to devise a way to keep the dessert flames burning.
"We experimented and got it down to a fine art," Ms. Campbell said. "We want the fire to last as long as possible. We will also use a lighting effect to make the stage look like it's flickering."
For flames that may flicker too long, the stage crew will be standing by with a fire extinguisher.
The revolving stage lends a dramatic effect, revealing an attractive Victorian dining room on one side and a cramped kitchen on the other, as characters continue to speak even while the stage is turning.
But the set piece de resistance comes when Ellen is illuminated from behind a painting in the dining room. Her silhouette becomes that of a mad woman sharpening butcher knives while ranting about dinner.
"When the cook was moved to anger, the barbarian in her came out in the way she sliced and diced," said Ms. Campbell. "Tina Howe feels there's a barbarian in each of us waiting to come out and that a little of it sneaks out of us at the least-expected moment."
Food for thought from a play that cuts to the bone.
Howard Community College presents "The Art of Dining" at 8 p.m. today, tomorrow and March 12 and 13, and at 2 p.m. Sunday at Smith Theatre. Tickets are $12 for orchestra and $10 for mezzanine. There is a $2 discount for students, seniors and groups of six or more. Information: 964-4900.