Mary à la carte

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


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 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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