In Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti,” Jennifer Levison is tasked with inhabiting the skin of a successful and sophisticated Manhattan woman who makes a heck of a risotto but can’t keep a man. What’s wrong with sassy, food-obsessed Giulia Melucci? And how on earth could her string of paramours not fall desperately in love with her fried eggplant and veal cutlets?
She’s not alone. Many of us have asked ourselves these same questions for years. Most people are hungry for love, companionship, juicy sex and a plate of rich carbonara.
Just don’t expect any answers from playwright Jacques Lamarre’s adaptation of New York author Melucci’s 2009 memoir-with-recipes. As directed by Rachel May and portrayed by Levison, aka Atlanta restaurateur Souper Jenny, Melucci is a publishing-industry executive with a spicy sense of humor and a simmering stew of self-confessional material. In the end, her recipe for finding love in lasagna doesn’t work out so well, and this talky, uneven word salad of a play isn’t all that insightful, funny or moving.
The real fun here is watching Levison cook a meal from scratch and serve it to a group of audience members sitting at cafe tables onstage. (I’m told those tickets are sold out.) Her Giulia chops onions and stirs up a pot of Bolognese, then rolls out pasta dough and spins it through a machine to make some of the prettiest, fluffiest fresh spaghetti you’ll ever see.
Buon appetito, you lucky, wine-sipping theatergoers.
Too bad the material Melucci and Lamarre give us to chew on in this two-act monologue is so banal and unremarkable. Giulia’s episodic cook-and-tell about what she poured into relationships with Steve, Kit, Ethan, Marcus and Lachlan, and what they failed to spoon back in return, is about as interesting as a box of Mueller’s (or Barilla, in Giulia’s status-conscious, name-droppy world).
Anytime a solo narrator is required to tell a story in the past tense, from start to finish, things are bound to get stale, unless both writing and acting are truly top-notch. To be sure, this isn’t Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson, Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir, Elaine Stritch as herself, or Jefferson Mays as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
It’s closer to “Sex and the City” meets the Food Network, with lots of third-rate romantic piffle, Italian-American cultural references and constant telephone calls from Giulia’s Sicilian mom thrown in.
“My mother taught me how to cook and how to love, for better or worse,” Giulia tells us early on. Her dad died when she was in high school, but she remembers how he made minestrone on Saturdays when it was too rainy for golf. Starting with her first crush Steve, who dumped Giulia for a large basketball player named Bernadette, and on up through Scottish writer Lachlan, Giulia’s quest for a steady man is mostly lukewarm.
Eager to find the perfect match, she is quick to move things to the front burner before getting to know her suitors. Consistently, things end poorly. Except for the sumptuous meals that are genetically predetermined, she doesn’t have much fun with this game, either.
Levison is solid as the ironic Giulia, but she’s so busy concentrating on her dual roles as cook and emcee that she doesn’t quite seem to have the wherewithal to build telling details or humor into the spiel. In a word, her acting doesn’t go deep. Her Giulia is likable enough but cooks too fast to reveal much more than surface heat. Giulia certainly dates some oddballs — doesn’t everybody? — but she never really finds much joy in the process.
And she doesn’t break our hearts.
Toward the end of the piece, Giulia, who has changed into a date-night appropriate red dress, seems to understand that you never find the right person when you try so hard. Maybe it’s time she got out of the kitchen and let someone cook for her. Turning down the flame may yield a more satisfying love sauce.
Too often, it seems that this play’s best attribute is its onstage cooking gimmick. That said, I’m wildly impressed with Levison’s pasta-making skills.
Damn, that Bolognese looked good.
“I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti”
Through Nov. 11. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets start at $29. Georgia Ensemble Theatre, 950 Forrest St., Roswell. 770-641-1260, get.org.
Bottom line: Good food, bad boyfriends, mediocre play.
IN OTHER NEWS:
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.