Charlie Varon serves up comfort food in ‘Storyborscht’

At the outset of his new storytelling session, with dining, Charlie Varon proudly points to the sign on the wall indicating that the health inspector has given him the OK, that his beet soup is the proper temperature.

It’s a casual start to the intimate Sunday brunch show, which begins after cheese and gluten-free crackers are offered; breaks in the middle for the aforementioned hot borscht (and rye bread and butter, during which he and diners chat); and concludes, followed by berries and chocolate.

Aptly, the show onstage at The Marsh Café in The City is called “Storyborscht.” It’s an example of the veteran solo actor’s attempt to erase the line between performer and audience, to find new ways to create meaningful, communal live artistic experiences in today’s world where so much “content” is so readily available on screens.

Judging from the reaction of the patrons, it worked.

Adding a meal and conversation to the stories, and keeping the pace leisurely, makes for a fulfilling afternoon. (Interestingly, Bay Area company Golden Thread Productions recently staged a similarly spirited show, “Oh My Sweet Land,” in kitchens, with a woman making traditional Syrian meatballs while telling harrowing stories about Syria’s refugees.)

Of course, it helps that Varon’s material is touching, funny and personal.

“Storyborscht,” developed with Varon’s longtime collaborator David Ford, is part of a series showcasing a short story cycle he’s been writing for six years centering on old Jews living in a Bay Area retirement home; he calls it a love letter to his parents, who are in their 90s.

He’s already taken a few of the stories from page to the Marsh stage: “Feisty Old Jew” and “Second Time Around.”

Here, he tells two other interconnected tales.

“Company” is a brief, sweet account about even-keeled Selma Cohen, who isn’t pleased when Adele Kleinberg backs out of their plan to go to the Jewish Community Center for a water exercise class, and later, a viewing of a film about disgraced New York politician Eliot Spitzer. But Adele’s absence ultimately works to the advantage of Selma, who meets a delightful old Chinese lady in the JCC locker room.

The longer “Back In the World” tells the story from Adele’s viewpoint. Unlike Selma, Adele has anxiety, panic attacks, even malice.

Yet although she cancels with Selma, claiming tightness in her chest, she unexpectedly goes out and finds herself on a frustrating and fulfilling adventure that takes her on Muni and to varied locales: McDonald’s, the place of her former employment as a therapist, a hotel, the JCC.

With fascinating, empathetic detail, Varon gets inside the minds of these ladies, bringing their fears, insecurities, and joys, to light.

In the end, “Storyborscht” (which Varon says he is open to performing in additional non-theater settings) serves up satisfying comfort food — literally and figuratively.

REVIEW
Charlie Varon’s Storyborscht
Where: Marsh Café, 1070 Valencia St., S.F.
When: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 29
Tickets: $50 to $75
Contact: (415) 282-3055, www.themarsh.org

Leslie Katz
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Leslie Katz

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