Mary à la carte

Mary Vander Leest in "Mary à la Carte." Photo by Brooke Nelson.

by SOPHIE KERMAN

All laughter is both highly personal and intensely social. We don’t laugh much when we’re alone, but the experience of shared laughter can bring a roomful of people together. Mary à la carte, which has just opened at the New Century Theatre after previous runs at the Bryant Lake Bowl, finds this common bond in the notable moments in one woman’s family life – an elderly aunt who boozes it up a bit too much, a family’s feigned ignorance that a relative is gay, a mother’s obsessive labeling of canned goods. While performer Mary Vander Leest‘s family is unconventional, her storytelling is like hearing about a crazy branch of distant relatives: although the characters are sometimes all-too-familiar, they are just kooky enough that we are comfortable laughing at them. In this laughter, Vander Leest encourages a collective embrace of our own families’ moments of weirdness.

The gimmick of Mary à la carte is that guests in the audience are asked to choose items from a diner menu, and each offering – from “Aunt Martha’s Fried Chicken” to “Pineapple Upside-Down Cake” – corresponds to a different anecdote or incident from Vander Leest’s life. The idea is cute, but since Vander Leest gets through all but around four of the menu items in her 90-minute show, I wondered why she didn’t just pick her favorites and make it a chef’s choice tasting menu.

Vander Leest is a charming performer, though, and if her audience participation moments don’t add much to her act, she does tell some good stories. (“Alphabet Soup” was a particular favorite of mine, and it has some truly priceless video footage to go along with it.) Her stage persona does not seem very far from her real-life personality, so the audience feels that they are getting to know a real person who has played some really odd roles in her life (including a year as the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Queen). Though the “Kielbasa” might make the men in the audience squirm, Vander Leest shies away from the overly raunchy; instead, she finds humor in the quirks and missteps of everyday life.

This brand of humor is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea – the majority of the crowd filling the New Century is over 40, and for good reason. Every comic has their audience, and the laughter Vander Leest shares is about a wealth of family experiences that may resonate better with a longer-range view of family dynamics. But for every weird person we all have in our families, we have a moment to bond (or commiserate) with Vander Leest. And if all else fails, she’ll teach you to make some impressive shapes with table napkins.

Mary à la carte by Mary Vander Leest, presented by the Hennepin Theatre Trust. March 22 – April 15, New Century Theatre, 615 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $18-$25 in person at the New Century Theatre, online at HennepinTheatreTrust.org or through Ticketmaster by calling 1.800.982.2787 or visiting a Ticketmaster Ticket Center.

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One thought on “Mary à la carte

  1. I attended the show with some friends and my parents on March 24. It was a mixed crowd of 20-somethings (which I am) and up. The show was GREAT! Mary engages the audience, asking people to pick an item off the menu at Mary’s Home Cookin’ Diner. Each menu item represents a story from her past- I can’t tell you which was my favorite, but I did leave the theater still laughing from some of the tales told over 90 minute show.

    As a 20-something, I highly recommend a night at Mary’s Home Cookin’ Diner! When you go, make sure to order the “Alphabet Soup!” We didn’t get to all of the items on the menu, so I believe a second trip is in order!

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