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Many shows boast that they offer something for everyone, but how many can say they offer nourishment for the mind, body and soul?

As unlikely as it sounds, playwright-performer Ed Schmidt’s "The Last Supper" accomplishes just that, with a heady mix of theater, comedy, religion and food. Yes, food - the playwright prepares a four-course meal for the audience during the performance.

Which is only fair, since you’re sitting in his kitchen.

The evening starts off with a hymn - Schmidt has installed church pews, complete with hymnals, in his apartment to accommodate his numerous dinner guests - and the atmosphere is very much like that of a religious service, an impression only reinforced by a reading from the Bible.

But things quickly veer in unexpected - and frequently hilarious - directions. Schmidt is setting the proper mood for the performance of his play, "The Last Supper," a re-imagining of the most famous dinner party in history (complete with a betrayal by a small-time hood named Judas).

Schmidt, who plays all the parts himself, draws the audience in with his good-natured charm, only to interrupt himself repeatedly with amusing asides and convoluted explanations, all delivered with terrific comic timing. He almost toys with his audience, probing the limits of what they will and will not believe.

Turns out this faith thing is trickier than it appears.

"I’ve always found that fascinating, the notion of what you believe as an audience member, whether you will suspend your disbelief," Schmidt says as he relaxes briefly after a recent performance. (There are still a lot of dishes to do.)

Dressed casually in a gray T-shirt, white pants and sneakers - he’s still in costume - the performer smiles happily as we discuss the events of the evening, which culminated in a clever coup de theatre (which I won’t divulge here).

Schmidt entertained and fed 25 people that night, who chatted happily as they ate the delicious meal together, and waited eagerly for Schmidt to join the party so they could ply him with questions about the performance.

The show originated in Schmidt’s home in Park Slope, with audiences entering through his basement, and word-of-mouth led to packed houses. But success has its price: Following particularly flattering write-ups in GO Brooklyn and the New York Times, overwhelming demand forced Schmidt to relocate "The Last Supper" to this larger Chelsea apartment.

Schmidt enjoyed performing the show in Brooklyn for a year and a half - "I liked the idea of all these Manhattanites coming out to Brooklyn like it was this exotic place," he says with a laugh - but opportunity beckoned across the water.

"I miss doing the show in Brooklyn, but coming to Manhattan has allowed me to seat twice as many people," he says. Performances are still very intimate affairs, however, with a maximum seating capacity of 30.

Schmidt makes the most of the friendly setting, constantly interacting with his audience, responding to comments directly, even pulling a member or two up on stage, i.e. the space around the island in the middle of his kitchen. There don’t seem to be any boundaries - performer/audience, theater/religion, fact/fiction - that Schmidt isn’t willing to ignore.

"I’m tweaking every single theatrical convention," he notes gleefully, "even the conventions of the program." Indeed, the program is hilarious reading, particularly when Schmidt lists prestigious theater companies who have rejected his submissions, or when he expresses his non-gratitude to the public institutions and private corporations that have not provided financial support.

"Most people pass right by that little thing about the funding," he says, grinning mischievously, "because they think, ’Oh, I’ve seen that a million times,’ and they don’t read it."

This could be tricky territory, playing fast and loose with audience expectations, especially where religious themes are involved. But Schmidt handles his material so deftly, and with so much intelligence and wit, that people are rarely offended.

"I’ve had the Catholic priest who married us, I’ve had several rabbis, seminarians [at the performance] - and basically everybody is fine with it," he says. After all, this is a performer who is brave enough to sit down and break bread with his audience after every show.

Mostly, the audience goes home well fed and well entertained. On the way out, almost everyone stops by to shake Schmidt’s hand and thank him for a wonderful evening. For his part, Schmidt seems to be genuinely enjoying himself. He’d have to be, to keep slaving over a hot stove, weekend after weekend, while a mess of strangers invade his home.

Schmidt’s attitude is typically good-natured: "I’ve created this dinner party where I can actually be comfortable, which is pretty great."

"The Last Supper" plays Friday and Saturday nights at 7 pm in the playwright’s apartment, 154 W. 27th St., #4W in Manhattan. For reservations, call (718) 499-7758 or Suggested donation: $50-$75.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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