A Difference in Taste

By John Ladd

A   P l a y   i n   O n e   A c t

C H A R A C T E R S

(In Order of Appearance)

Stephanie

Nicholai

S E T T I N G

The interior of an Italian restaurant. There is a small table for two at center-stage. It has a red and white checkered tablecloth, place settings for two – opposite each other – and the usual items that go along with a dinner, including a bottle of red wine.

A T   R I S E

STEPHANIE is sitting at the table, alone. She has paused in the eating of her dinner and, with elbows on the table, she is holding her glass of wine, taking an occasional sip. Enter, from stage-right, NICHOLAI. He approaches the table and sits down. Throughout the play STEPHANIE and NICHOLAI takes bites of food, sips of wine or pour more wine for themselves and each other. Increasingly, from start to finish, they continue to drink and become more “tipsy.”

*

NICHOLAI

So, where were we?

(thinking)

Yes, yes – you said you had a question.

*

STEPHANIE

My question—

(pause)

My question is relatively obvious – why?

*

NICHOLAI

Why?

*

STEPHANIE

Yes, why tonight – after all these years?

*

NICHOLAI

(nodding)

It has been years – what – twelve, thirteen?

*

STEPHANIE

Just over fourteen and an half.

*

NICHOLAI

Wow! More than I remember.

*

STEPHANIE

But not long enough for me to forget.

*

NICHOLAI

(disappointed)

Steph—

*

STEPHANIE

(interrupting)

But let’s get back to the question, why tonight?

*

NICHOLAI

Would you believe to see if you missed me?

*

STEPHANIE

I don‘t.

*

NICHOLAI

But you haven’t divorced me.

*

STEPHANIE

Nor you me!

*

NICHOLAI

Like we agreed when we split – why should the lawyers get rich.

*

STEPHANIE

I’m waiting for an answer.

*

NICHOLAI

Consider it junior colleague to senior colleague.

(pause)

Look, you do the restaurant reviews for the Herald and I do them for the Gazette, so, why not meet for dinner? Besides, you’re the one who got me into this business.

*

STEPHANIE

(sarcastically)

I see, sort of like a professional téte-à-téte?

*

NICHOLAI

Yes, yes – exactly.

*

STEPHANIE

But without retiring to your place or my place to—

(putting her fingers in the air to outline a quote)

review the “dessert menu.”

*

NICHOLAI

No dessert menu, no after dinner drinks, no comparing notes – just dinner here.

*

STEPHANIE

(thinking)

All right, that seems harmless enough.

*

NICHOLAI

Good, good—

(pause)

So, are you going to do a review based on tonight?

*

STEPHANIE

I don’t know—

(pause)

I’ve come not to like Italian.

*

NICHOLAI

(surprised)

You don’t? Why not? I thought that you did?

*

STEPHANIE

No, not anymore. These Italian places remind me of you.

*

NICHOLAI

Me?

*

STEPHANIE

Yeah, you know, dull, boring – kind of rustic and homey – I mean, everything in here could have been built by you, out back – from scratch.

*

NICHOLAI

Oh, I see, as opposed to exciting, super chic and neat, brand new and ultra-modernly expensive?

*

STEPHANIE

That‘s me – and that‘s why we‘re separated – and not – living together.

(pause)

Look, just about every Italian restaurant is the same. The atmosphere, the layout—

*

NICHOLAI

(interrupting)

But what about the food and the drink?

*

STEPHANIE

Wait a minute, let me ask you another question, are you going to review this place for the Gazette?

*

NICHOLAI

I am.

*

STEPHANIE

(thinking and considering)

All right, all right – I see – we’ll go one-on-one. You and me, the same restaurant reviewed at the same time in two different newspapers. Yeah, I like that. Okay,then, I’ll review it for the Herald.

*

NICHOLAI

Great.

(pause)

Where do you want to start?

*

STEPHANIE

At the beginning – with the cocktails.

*

NICHOLAI

The Bloody Bulls that we had.

*

STEPHANIE

Yes. I thought, well,

(hesitantly)

well, considering my distaste for all things Nicholai – I mean, Italian – I thought that it was really good, well made.

*

NICHOLAI

You found that well made?

*

STEPHANIE

And tasty.

*

NICHOLAI

Even though the vodka they used was something akin to Georgi and nowhere near to Zyr?

*

STEPHANIE

Tell me, how do you know?

*

NICHOLAI

I know by the way it moves and flows around in my mouth before I swallow it.

(pause)

And, besides – the Tabasco sauce was old, it was the wrong kind of black pepper, the Campbell’s beef broth – which is supposed to be at double strength – you could see that it was watered down – was only at single strength, the color of the drink belied the possibility of them adding much – let alone what the recipe calls for – of Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, no sign of the celery salt and,

(pause and then a resigned sigh)

the lemon wedge was bordering on being dehydrated.

*

STEPHANIE

All that?

*

NICHOLAI

What do you mean? I have addressed every aspect – every ingredient in the drink.

*

STEPHANIE

(amazed and impressed)

No – I mean, yes – I know, but you were so, so

(searching for the right word)

so, so—

*

NICHOLAI

(interrupting)

Comprehensive?

*

STEPHANIE

Yes, yes! I am amazed and impressed!

*

NICHOLAI

See what you have missed by living in your sterile and neat little world.

*

STEPHANIE

And what about the wine?

*

NICHOLAI

You mean – our wine?

*

STEPHANIE

(uncertain)

What?

*

NICHOLAI

(quickly)

Of course – you must remember – all those years when we drank so many bottles of Brunello di Montalcino that, well,

(almost flippantly)

we should have owned stock in the company.

*

STEPHANIE

(realizing with a growing sense of endearment)

Is that what it is—

(she trails off)

– the Brunello –

(pause)

I had forgotten.

(pause)

How nice.

*

NICHOLAI

But how better to celebrate not only us coming to sit down together as professionals, but to commemorate – and remember – some of the better moments of our past.

(pause)

Do you remember our wine, now? Does your palate tell you – recount for you – the good times, together?

*

STEPHANIE

(dreamily)

Yes, yes—

[STEPHANIE takes a long sip of wine after which NICHOLAI refills both of their glasses]

that was very thoughtful.

*

NICHOLAI

(waiting a moment before changing the subject)

And what did you think of the pizzoccheri?

*

STEPHANIE

(flattered but uncertain)

I don’t know, I mean after that critique of the cocktail, well, maybe I should let you tell me.

*

NICHOLAI

No, no – it is you who has taught me all that I know—

(pause)

so, tell me – what did you think – you know – about the pizzoccheri?

*

STEPHANIE

(thinking)

Well, I think that they tried to make it tasty but—

(pause to think)

*

NICHOLAI

(interrupting)

But what?

*

STEPHANIE

(resuming her line of analysis)

Yeah, like I said, they tried to make it tasty – like you would experience in northern Italy – but somehow it didn’t quite reach that threshold—

(pause)

all the ingredients seemed to be there, but at the same time – although it tasted the way pizzoccheri should taste – it somehow tasted—

(STEPHANIE is searching for the right word)

It tasted—

(still searching)

*

NICHOLAI

(interrupting)

Generic?

*

STEPHANIE

Exactly! Yes, generic.

*

NICHOLAI

Very good, actually brilliant!

*

STEPHANIE

You think so?

*

NICHOLAI

Of course.

(pause)

Look, cooking generically while holding it out to be authentic is no different than a forgery and a counterfeit. It’s in every walk of life – forged artwork, counterfeit money, knock-off watches and purses – why should food be any different?

*

STEPHANIE

Sad to say, you’re right.

(looking more closely at NICHOLAI)

You know, back then – when we were, together – I know that I never said anything, but, there were a lot of times when your intelligence and analytical skills really, so often, left me in awe.

*

NICHOLAI

(sensing the moment and seizing it)

But still, it was you who sensed that it was generic, it was you who sensed and articulated the ruse.

*

STEPHANIE

(fingering her glass and thinking, perhaps dangerously now)

Hmm.

(returning, reluctantly, to the subject of the pizzoccheri)

Obviously, then, you agree it is generic?

*

NICHOLAI

Absolutely.

*

STEPHANIE

Tell me.

*

NICHOLAI

Okay, but I think that pointing out a couple of things will be enough to support the conclusion. I’m guessing that instead of using butter in the first step, they used margarine.

*

STEPHANIE

Why?

*

NICHOLAI

You could see that both the sage and the garlic were terribly overcooked which hints to me that they used margarine instead of butter because as we both know the melting point of butter is between 90 and 95 degrees. Margarine, on the other had, generally melts between 94 and 98 degrees. Thus, the overcooking.

*

STEPHANIE

Very good, but you said a couple of points. Give me one more.

*

NICHOLAI

All right.

(pause)

What is the essential ingredient in this dish?

*

STEPHANIE

(quickly)

The bread crumbs.

*

NICHOLAI

That’s right, and they’re suppose to be homemade. But, if you looked at them carefully, they were too uniform, too perfect – each looking like the other – they were store bought.

[STEPHANIE is sitting silently, nodding to what NICHOLAI has just said when a look of realization begins to sweep over her face.]

*

STEPHANIE

(cautiously and carefully)

You know, Nicholai, I am thinking about your critique, tonight. And, you have talked about texture, you have talked about color – you have talked about how things feel, look – the “hints” that you have detected in the preparation of the food – you have even spoken of our shared memories regarding the Brunello, but you have not said anything about taste.

(pause)

Tell me, Nicholai, how did all these things taste to you?

*

NICHOLAI

(pausing as he looks over at her and weighs what will be his response)

Steph—

(pause, then hesitantly)

Remember,

(pause, then hesitantly)

remember how was it in the beginning?

*

STEPHANIE

You mean when we first got married?

*

NICHOLAI

(slowly)

No, before that—

(pause)

When we first met. When you were – what – the beat reporter?

*

STEPHANIE

I was an entertainment reporter and you were in the circus.

(pause)

I had gone to see you perform because we thought that you would be a fascinating interview. And you were!

(pause)

It was incredible. How could I ever forget that?

*

NICHOLAI

And you remember that one of things that attracted us to each other was our interest and love of cooking? And how that eventually turned to – spun off into – what we are doing for a living, today? Specifically, how once you were established, you helped me get started?

*

STEPHANIE

Yes, clearly.

(pause)

But what does that have to do with tonight – with my question about taste?

*

NICHOLAI

(hesitantly)

Steph – over the years that I did my routine – the eating and breathing of fire – yes, blowing flames out of your mouth was a real thrill – a true act of discipline. But there were drawbacks. The biggest was the blow-back, when the flames come back into your mouth and your throat.

(sighs)

Well, progressively over the years – because of the number of blow-backs – I have, for all intents and purposes, lost my sense of taste.

[STEPHANIE is stunned. She fidgets with her place setting,

takes sips of wine, and scrutinizes NICHOLAI carefully.]

*

STEPHANIE

You can’t taste at all? No sweet, no sour, no bitter, no salty—

*

NICHOLAI

(interrupting)

Nothing.

*

STEPHANIE

But your reviews are so exact – almost perfectly right on the mark.

*

NICHOLAI

As you have deduced, I have managed and found a way.

*

STEPHANIE

(thinking carefully)

But this is your livelihood.

(pause)

Does anyone else know?

*

NICHOLAI

No.

*

STEPHANIE

But you have trusted me with this knowledge?

(pause)

Why?

*

NICHOLAI

Well, I felt close to you, tonight. We shared tonight what we had so often shared in the past – our love for food. Besides, we may not have always gotten along, but you had never betrayed me – hell, like we talked earlier – you haven’t even divorced me yet and its been fourteen and an half years!

*

STEPHANIE

(thinking)

Nicholai, I am very touched. I would never have thought that you would share something so—

(pause, then almost reluctantly)

something so intimate with me.

(uncertain)

I don’t know what to say.

*

NICHOLAI

Stephanie, you don’t have to say anything. But how about we order another bottle of wine and then proceed to applying our skills to the dessert menu?

[STEPHANIE raises her glass for a toast. NICHOLAI does the same.]

*

STEPHANIE

(touching NICHOLAI’s glass)

On to the dessert menu.

(a quick pause)

And then, after the wine and the dessert, well, who knows, maybe we will look into having that after dinner drink – somewhere.

*

B L A C K O U T

*

E N D   O F   P L A Y

______________

John Ladd has lived in communities as small as a fishing village in Erieau, Ontario, Canada – (today’s population, 400) to New York City (population 8+ million). In between these two there has been Chicago, Illinois; Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, New York; Rocky Mount, North Carolina; Athens and Milledgeville, Georgia; and Knoxville, Tennessee.

The lifestyles and experiences that he observed and gained have contributed significantly to his development as a writer. These phenomena range as broadly as the places in which he has lived. On one end there were the “Huck Finn” times – during which the only parental admonitions were “. . . don’t drown and don’t get run over by the train . . .” to living in New York City on September 11, 2001.

Currently, John is living in upstate New York where, when he is not writing, he is tending to “the grounds” while being kept company by his coonhound, Roma.


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