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Culture Theater

‘Babette’ off-Broadway

Juliana Francis-Kelly, Steven Skybell, Abigail Killeen and Michelle Hurst (© Carol Rosegg)

Theater

‘Babette’ off-Broadway

Babette’s Feast brings refreshing subject matter to New York’s theater district, but the play’s ingredients need a tweak

Readers may know Babette’s Feast from the original short story by Isak Dinesen or the acclaimed 1987 film adaptation. Now that story is playing in an open-ended run off-Broadway, in a gorgeous old church in New York’s theater district.

The play, which follows the short story more closely than the film, takes place within an ascetic Protestant sect in a remote Norwegian village. Two sisters take in Babette, a refugee of war in France, without knowing anything else about her. The taciturn Babette—secretly one of the world’s greatest chefs—ends up blessing and transforming the town in a radical act of generosity.

It’s a meaty story about a gift of unmerited grace that is rare for an off-Broadway show. Characters quote Scripture throughout, and the play never takes a derogatory view of the sectarians. Whatever their particular Christian tradition is, it has a mystical vibe. The sectarians regularly repeat their founder’s creed: “God’s paths run across the sea and the snowy mountains, where man’s eye sees no track.”

Michelle Hurst (Orange Is the New Black) brings wonderful weight and dignity to Babette. The play’s simple design is beautiful too (despite the absence of any real food or drink). 

It seems to me the play would be truly compelling if each actor stayed within his or her role. Instead, an ensemble of six narrates the story, and the actors whirl very theatrically in and out of different characters. Babette is a story of intimate community, and that intimacy is lost when an actor is switching from playing a pompous Italian opera star to a fishmonger to a pious townsperson. The audience doesn’t have a chance to bond with the characters. 

Babette’s Feast isn’t badly done. I just wish it were a knockout—like the five-star excellence Babette delivers in her act of grace.