Thursday, October 31, 2019

104 (2019-2020): Review: SEARED (seen October 30, 2019)

“In Search of the Wild Salmon”

The only thing searing about Seared, Theresa Rebeck’s edible but not always digestible new comedy, is a seared, wild salmon dish actually cooked on stage. Its preparation is in the hands of Harry (four-time Tony nominee Raul Esparza), a contrarian, anti-capitalist (until he’s not), self-absorbed, self-destructive chef working in a boutique, Park Slope restaurant. The play comes to New York after its premiere at the San Francisco Playhouse and an East Coast premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Raul Esparza. All photos: Joan Marcus.
Harry and his three coworkers (a fourth, a dishwasher, never appears) keep the sauces simmering throughout the play’s two and a quarter hours (with one intermission). Most patrons will feel they’ve had a toothsome theatrical meal although, for all of its gourmet pretensions, Rebeck can’t avoid overcooking it.

The production’s use of real onstage cooking is its most novel contribution, although there have been earlier plays, even going back to the late 19th and early 20th-centuries, in which real food was prepared on stage.

[A digression: In Food and Theatre on the World Stage, Dorothy Chansky reminds us that in 1892, James Herne’s Shore Acres, set on a Maine farm, included “the preparation (on a wood stove) and consumption of a complete turkey dinner, with attention given to details right down to a discussion of various ways of making cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. . . .” In 1912, director-playwright David Belasco presented The Governor’s Lady in which he replicated the interior of a Childs Restaurant in which real food was prepared and eaten. As the New York Times critic wrote, “one could almost scent the ‘browning of the wheat.’” More modern examples would include Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen, which shows the daily routine in a large restaurant kitchen, where, in one account, “Two expert pastry chefs . . . roll out dough, prepare tarts, baste, and bake bread throughout the entire working day.”]

Seared, set in the restaurant’s small, perfectly naturalistic kitchen (designed by Tim Mackabee), begins as we watch a precisely choreographed sequence of Harry preparing a meal in time to a rhythmic jazz background (excellent sound design by Palmer Heffernan). An even more detailed meal--the seared, wild salmon--is crafted in act two. These are perfect displays of director Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s (Bernhardt/Hamlet) ability to create complex, dynamic activity within a confined, cluttered space, a talent he consistently deploys throughout.

Seared is about how Harry—typifying the obsessive artist who places his genius above commerce, disdaining filthy lucre if it threatens his creative vision—takes his culinary compulsions to such outrageous levels that they threaten to harm not only himself but those who depend on him. These are his partner, Mike (David Mason), the manager whose money built the business; Rodney (W. Tré Davis), the African-American waiter who idolizes the chef to the point of sharing his tips with him; and Emily (Krysta Rodriguez), the beautiful consultant Mike hires to improve the establishment’s business following its listing as a “Best Bet” by New York magazine.
Raul Esparza, W. Tré Davis, Krysta Rodriguez, David Mason. 
The central conflict derives from Harry’s disdainful attitude toward anything that might corrupt the purity of his cooking. When his scallops are publicly praised, for example, he refuses to make them anymore. “I’m not feeling the scallops,” he utters. Later, he devises a delicious wild salmon dish, refusing the practical substitution of the more readily available farmed salmon. With the business failing, Mike, desperate to turn things around, brings in the insistently upbeat Emily, who has her own agenda, to provide new ideas, but Harry nastily dismisses her.
Raul Esparza, Krysta Rodriguez.
The expected rom-com developments do, of course, arrive, but mainly for momentary spice. Ultimately, Harry’s reluctant willingness to change his OCD-like gastronomic routine meets its ultimate test when a major critic comes to review the restaurant and Harry, true to himself, pulls the ultimate hissy fit.
Raul Esparza, Krysta Rodriguez, David Mason.
Given that this is a 16-20-seat restaurant, the menu-less kind that uses a blackboard to note the day’s dishes, it’s hard to swallow the idea that—regardless of Harry’s talent—the place could survive with an uncompromising prima donna who resists doing his part when the place is on the brink of financial success. One also has to wonder how, even if Harry were amenable, the place could operate with a single person preparing the food, especially as he takes so much time to prepare each dish. Further, if this handsome, articulate, middle-aged chef is so gifted, why isn’t he higher up on the food chain by now?
W. Tré Davis. 
If you take these far-fetched premises on faith and don’t mind the triviality of the situations, you’ll enjoy the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue; the colorful, expertly played frustrations embedded in the ongoing arguments; the directorial orchestration of movement, music, and dramatic interplay; the strained but nonetheless touching resolution; and the well-honed performances.

Esparza masterfully navigates the difficulties of enacting minutely detailed kitchen business—including the use of a sharp slicing knife—while somehow managing to make the selfishly arrogant Harry not too annoyingly unlikable. Davis’s Mike bickers heatedly with Harry but never abandons a sense of love and respect for his infuriating partner. Rodriguez—looking awesome in trendy outfits designed by Tilly Grimes—diplomatically handles the chaos in which Emily finds herself with remarkable aplomb. And Davis, despite the implausibility of the transformation Rodney undergoes, is a charmingly pleasant presence.

Seared wasn’t always to my taste but, given what’s available in the barely appetizing marketplace of recently opened new plays, it just might be flavorsome enough to place on my “Best Bets” list, if I had one.

The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space/Susan and Ronald Frankel Theater
511 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through December 15

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