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This actor always plays to a full house

Posted: Thursday, January 09, 2003

NEW YORK -- The star greets his fans in person, peeking out of the basement door. He leads his flock upstairs -- to a theater like no other.

Ed Schmidt's play, called ''The Last Supper,'' is a highly unorthodox bit of dinner theater -- presented in the actor-playwright's own Brooklyn apartment.

This quiet neighborhood is about as far ''off Broadway'' as it gets.

On a weekend evening, Schmidt leads a group of strangers -- a biologist, a City Hall lawyer, an actress, a literary agent -- into his cramped kitchen-living room. The visitors amble past a child's red wagon and a coffee table adorned with a doll. Call them props for the unscripted moments when his kids, 6-year-old Jack and 3-year-old Beatrice, will dart by during the monologue or call out, ''Daddy!''

The visitors settle into their seats -- old church pews -- for the retelling of Jesus' last meal, with Schmidt as Jesus and his spectators representing the disciples. Schmidt calls it ''an evening of honest-to-God'' theater -- served up with a side of reality.

Schmidt's wife, Mary Beth Kilkelly, a former actress who markets children's books, helps with the cleaning and even handles calls for reservations.

''It's been terrific because the play is really great,'' says Kilkelly, who joins the spectators midway through dinner to chat. ''It's very enjoyable to talk to people and see what they think.''

Curiosity-seekers from around the United States, as well as Argentina, Israel, Germany and France have called for tickets to the performances that are sold out through March 1. One evening, an NBC ''Today'' show crew descended on the Schmidt home, crisscrossing the tiny kitchen with cables and cameras.

It's show time.

''Please rise and turn to Hymn 47,'' instructs Schmidt, a 40-year-old native of Chapel Hill, N.C.

Before the visitors break bread on a plywood table, the Jesus character, in a gray T-shirt, delivers the Biblical story of multiplying bread and fish to feed the multitudes.

''You either believe, or you don't,'' he intones in the drawl of a Southern preacher, thumping the Bible. ''This book is filled with stories even more outlandish.''

In his own outlandish style -- but with what he considers due respect to his Catholic heritage -- Schmidt bounces existential curve balls around the apartment, where angst-ridden lives are questioned, mocked and rhapsodized. He pokes the human psyche, digressing into everything from Greek tragedy to twists on Agatha Christie.

Somehow, four Biblical characters morph into a New York mobster named Judas, an older woman wearing a tattered hat, a middle-age homemaker and her pregnant teenage daughter.

And somehow, this take on the New Testament, set in the urban jungle, comes complete with a murder mystery.

''It's about what we believe, why we believe, how we believe,'' Schmidt says of his play.

He claims he's an ordained minister, thanks to a $14 Internet license. But he also keeps repeating that it's all an act, that he's ''just pretending.''

One element is very real -- the food: gourmet cheese appetizers, Belgian beer, home-cooked lamb stew, three bottles of Cotes du Rhone wine beneath a wrought-iron chandelier, alight with candles.

Each dish of homemade ice cream is topped with a dark chocolate cross. Schmidt creates the crosses each week, pouring bittersweet Belgian chocolate into a mold with a baby spoon.

The ''suggested donation'' for this cross-pollination of ''Saturday Night Live'' and soul-wrenching religion is $25 to $40 per person, stuffed into an ''offering'' envelop inside one of the dozen hymnals at the pews.

This is Schmidt's big break after years of ''temp'' jobs, with only a few small productions amid countless rejection letters -- duly quoted in the evening's program.

''I was very moved by the idea of a guy dedicating his life to working in his study, creating characters,'' said spectator Ethan McSweeny, a Brooklyn artist. ''It's an act of faith -- that you will one day affect somebody.''

The play's run ends in March, after more than 10 months of theater in the home of a family that admittedly sometimes craves the return of ''normalcy.''

Concedes Schmidt: ''We don't want pews in our kitchen forever.''

Waiting list reservations can be made by calling 718-499-7758.

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On the Net:

''The Last Supper'': http://www.nytheatre.com/nytheatre/lastsupp.htm



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