NEW YORK — The Rev. Ed Schmidt's voice cracks like incoming thunder as he preaches from his pulpit at the Church of Universal Life.
"You either believe or you don't," he says to a small crowd of captive parishioners. "But I promise you," he points a finger in the air, his voice now escalating in the tone of a natural evangelist, "by the end of the evening, you will believe."
It is Friday night, and Mr. Schmidt is delivering a sermon about the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes. The 12-person congregation sits awkwardly on the edge of their pews, unsure of what will come next. His voice escalates to an evangelical pitch, "Two fishes and five loaves fed 5,000 people." Then he leans toward the crowd and says softly: "And normal, average people like you and me," he shrugs his shoulders, "well, not me - I've been on the 'Today' show - but normal people actually believe this?"
His interruption arrives like an unexpected commercial on TV, triggering a split second of confusion over what is real and what is not. In that millisecond, the audience remembers that the Church of Universal Life is really the Schmidts' home in Brooklyn, and that Schmidt is performing a one-man rendition of "The Last Supper" from his kitchen counter.
Schmidt refers to his performance of "The Last Supper" as "honest-to-God dinner theater." But dinner theater brings to mind buffet tables, show tunes, and what actors call "joydit" lines - when the audience tells the cast after the show how much "they enjoyed it."
"The Last Supper" is more like a circuitous taxicab ride with detours and digressions that force the passengers to question their faith in the driver. His divergence from mainstream theater seems to work: the show is sold out through the end of its run in March.
The blurring between the real and unreal begins with the ticket purchase. The reservation number, it turns out, is the Schmidts' household phone. When patrons arrive at the "Church of Universal Life," a sign on the front door sends them through Schmidt's basement, backyard, and kitchen where Schmidt greets his guests.
The 7 p.m. play, which culminates when a red curtain is drawn to reveal a meal cooked by Schmidt, takes place in his family's kitchen and dining room and lasts approximately three hours, (although guests sometimes stay until he and his wife kick them out at midnight, when they wash dishes).
During the performance, Schmidt plays four different roles - a police officer, a squalid old lady, a pregnant girl, and a guy named Judas - by darting out his kitchen back door and reappearing from behind a red curtain at the other end of the room.
The plot, which includes reference to a kiss, a gunshot, an unexpected meal, and the IRS, is supposedly an unconventional rendition of Jesus' final meal with the disciples before the crucifixion from the viewpoint of unholy women preparing the supper.
It turns out that the evening is not so much about what happens in the plot, but what happens around it. It is faith in uncertainty that fuses together the characters in the plot, Schmidt's readiness to invite 12 strangers into his own home, bringing the audience out to Brooklyn to watch a stranger perform in his own kitchen. There is no fixed fee, only a suggested "offering" of $25 to $40.
"The meaning doesn't emerge so much from the words that are put on the page," says Dorothy Chansky, professor of theater history and feminist theater at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "It emerges as you doubt and interrogate your own questions about what's happening. It's metatheatrical. I wasn't expecting to be tricked, and I love it when I feel worked over by a piece of theater. I love it that people can still pull it of off."
Schmidt, a playwright, is the sole writer, director, producer, actor, cook, and host. His website states that he is a trained chef ("Culinary Institute of America: double major poultry and force meats"), an ordained minister ("Official title: Universal Philosopher of Absolute Reality"), and that he was denied undergraduate admission from Harvard ("but probably wouldn't have gone even if he was accepted").
Throughout the evening, he wards off telephone callers and giggling cameos from his 3-year-old, Beatrice; skims over scenes to beat the clock; looks up words in a dictionary; and tells the audience, "This is not a play, so feel free to leave your cellphone on."
The play is peppered with contradictions. "You might be thinking this is going to be like 'Tina and Tony's Wedding,' " he says midperformance. "Well, you could not pay me to go to that. That is definitely not what this is!"
Then he interrupts himself again, "Oh, what the hell, that is exactly what this is."
Perplexed? Good. That is exactly Schmidt's intention. The performance blurs the lines between two background and foreground plots, and keeps the audience perpetually wondering what to believe.
Just when the audience is on the verge of being lost in his digressions, Schmidt reminds them: "If you believe the storyteller, you believe the story." And naturally, the audience believes him. Only after the performance does Schmidt admit that he never attended the Culinary Institute of America and proves that he is an ordained minister with a $14 Internet certificate from the Universal Life Church stuck on his fridge.
The real Ed Schmidt started his career as a playwright when he graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. His plays have been produced by a handful of theater companies, including LA Theaterworks, the Chicago Theater Company, and the Pasadena Playhouse. He has also written screenplays with his brother, Steve Schmidt, including "Cost of Living" with Edie Falco.
His idea for "The Last Supper" began to materialize after he saw a "Tartuffe" production in 1996, directed by Ariane Mnouchkine. During intermission, the actors served stew to the costumed audience.
"I always liked the idea of actors feeding the audience," he explains after the night's performance.
"I wanted to write a play about nourishment and sustenance." Schmidt wanted to create a theatrical experience that generated intimacy among the audience.
But after 11 months spending Wednesday through Saturday shopping, cooking, and preparing for weekend performances, Schmidt admits he is exhausted. He hopes to soon franchise the play in other cities.
After the performance, the guests discuss the play over lamb stew at a long table in the dining room. Schmidt's absence and the collective discussion create a warm communal atmosphere. The audience members, once strangers and now dinner-party companions, are eager to talk.
"I told my friend beforehand, 'This is liable to be really blasphemous or just mildly offensive,' " said Paul Naish, a graduate student at Columbia University. "A lot of theater is offensive. But ['The Last Supper'] was like a secular sermon. It's sad we have to go to the theater to experience faith. Faith isn't about being a believer. It's about being challenged. This challenges you."
"We never knew what to expect," says Michael Zuckerman, a Brooklyn resident who attended the play with his wife and son.
"But the surprise is what it's all about," he said while eating chocolate sherbet with a chocolate cross in the center.
Fifteen minutes later, Schmidt returns and joins the dinner party, and then his wife, Mary Beth Kilkelly, a former actress who works in book publishing, also sits in on the discussion. Everyone is stunned by the family's willingness to turn their home into a public theater every weekend. What did Mary Beth first think of her husband's idea? "She was all for it!" Schmidt exclaims, and Mary Beth smiles in agreement.
And as to their little daughter, Beatrice, who usually interrupts her father's performance with a few unrehearsed giggles, Schmidt explains: "Oh, she has her show, too: During the week, she makes me sit in the pews while she performs at the counter."