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Although chefs across town have experimented with setting tables for strangers, Cafe Nordo may be the first outfit to get communal dining right.

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Cafe Nordo Futzes With the Culinary Canon

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Although chefs across town have experimented with setting tables for strangers, Cafe Nordo may be the first outfit to get communal dining right.

At the close of its current show, performers in the culinary theater troupe usher attendees into Washington Hall's main auditorium for what's billed as a grand banquet. Spectators are seated at a massive u-shaped table for a runty feast of kale, radishes, salmon and steak (the portioning rule on the proteins is one nubbin apiece.) There's an enormous, sloppy trifle for dessert.

The meal isn't anything special, but the conversation eclipses the guarded patter that's typically traded over food served family-style. That's partly because diners have forged a psychic closeness after three hours spent enduring sketches meant to be madcap, and partly because there are bound to be commonalities amongst a group of people who thrill to the concept of leotard-clad actors playing with liquid nitrogen. Also, should conversation lag, the dinner's interspersed with random song-and-dance breaks that, happily, don't demand complete guest silence. That never happens at The Corson Building.

Unfortunately, the concluding supper is a rare highlight of an evening that surely makes more sense to theater types than food lovers. Every guest I met at a recent performance of Cafe Nordo's Cabinet of Curiosities was either an actor or a dear friend of one of the performers. I'll leave it to them to judge whether the production met its dramatic goals; From my standpoint, Cabinet of Curiosities fell short of its promise.

Cafe Nordo is now in its third year of staging semi-interactive shows that pair surreal theatrical vignettes with wine and small plates. The shows are ostensibly food-themed: Previous productions have tackled seafood and Space Age cuisine. Best as I could tell, Cabinet of Curiosities means to explore the notion of celebrity chefdom as exemplified by a mysterious Frenchman of an earlier era, but I'm not sure how that plot line led us to a cramped room with a pair of rhyming sprites blowing trumpets and hanging from the ceiling. If it alarms you to know that room's door appeared to open only from the outside, you will probably hate Cafe Nordo.

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I wanted to love Cafe Nordo. As someone who eats out nearly every night, I'm always excited when someone tries to do dinner differently - especially if the goal is to provoke serious thought about the whats and whys of eating. But the script was so scattered and the food so dull that the very long evening never threatened to become revelatory.

Granted, it's hard to wring a satisfying spectacle from onion soup with crème frâiche. Yet sometimes the show was tripped up by easier-to-fix mistakes. Although many of the actors were excellent, a few of them projected in remarkably stilted fashion. Maybe it was an artistic decision, or maybe it was a response to the acoustics of the rickety hall, through which audience members tromp as they travel from scene/course to scene/course. Either way, as a theater rube, I often found it difficult to focus on what they were saying. And a pretty salad of invasive species served in the sprites' room - the only dish of the night that didn't seem swiped from a standard hotel catering menu - was spoiled because there weren't any knives with which to attack it.

The Cabinet's most memorable scene involved a pair of spatting French lovers played by Mark Siano and the talented Opal Peachey. The couple welcomed guests to their 1920s salon, a room which benefited tremendously from smart set design. Here, the story was coherent; the spectators' wine-sipping was logical and both the dialogue and mushroom tart were better together than they might have been alone. In the salon, Cafe Nordo successfully facilitated a mood, which not every restaurateur can capably do. Facilitating insight is the next step, and I hope I'm there when Nordo nails it.

Cabinet of Curiosities runs through June 17. Tickets are $70 ($80 on weekends), and can be purchased here.

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