The first thing that strikes your attention when you get to MCC’s intimate Robert W. Wilson Theater Space is not the busy set of a backroom kitchen, not the low lighting or relatively small performance space, it’s the program. Or, more specifically, Theresa Rebeck’s bio. It states that ‘Last season her fourth Broadway play premiered on Broadway, making Rebeck the most Broadway-produced female playwrights of our time’. And you think to yourself that can’t be right; either for Ms. Rebeck or the other women playwrights of our generation. Surely they have more than that! A quick check in IBDB confirms it, however. In terms of actual Broadway shows, Yasmina Reza has three, Paula Vogel and Suzan-Lori Parks have two, Sarah Ruhl only has one. Marsha Norman has a half dozen or so but most of those are books for musicals. Not that Broadway is the be all and end all of talent but it just seems that in this day and age women would be more represented than that. Seared may or may not be number five for Ms. Rebeck; it may be considered too small a show with stakes not profound enough to demand $120 per ticket but that would be Broadway’s loss. Not to overdo the cooking references but Seared is a delightfully tasty offering; a play with heart, rich characters, an intriguing plot and lots of laughs.
Raul Esparza plays Harry, a brilliant but emotionally unstable chef at a small boutique restaurant in Brooklyn, a control freak of the highest order. As the lights go up Harry has just received a rave review from New York Magazine with regards to his signature scallops dish. Rather than react to it the way a normal person would – with joy and satisfaction – Harry reacts to it the way Harry reacts to most things, which is in the most self-destructive way possible. He removes the dish from the menu and refuses to cook it any more, making up one bizarre excuse after another, even though it is why many people are coming to the restaurant in the first place. This understandably frustrates his business partner and co-owner of the restaurant Mike (played by David Mason), who’s invested his life savings in this venture and would love to get through just one day without a life and death battle over the needs of the artist versus the reality of having to pay the bills. In fact, their entire relationship is based on need. Harry needs Mike because the nuts and bolts of actually running a restaurant don’t interest him and Mike needs Harry because Harry’s cooking is the main reason for their success. Success is forever fleeting, however, and as the rents in their area keep going higher, the chances of their surviving keep going lower, no matter how good the food is. Enter Emily (played by Krysta Rodriguez). Emily is a high octane, seemingly inexhaustible force of nature, a free lance business consultant who comes in to try the food, loves it and wants to help turn things around for them. Why exactly Emily is doing this is not a hundred percent clear. It could be the thrill of taking something small and making it bigger. It could be she expects a large paycheck to come out of it eventually. Or it could be just what she says – her passion for what it is they’re doing and needing to be a part of it. Naturally everything she does sets Harry on edge, from expanding the seating to experimenting with the menu to adding actual physical menus. In her own way Emily is as much of an artist as Harry is, with neither one prone to compromise. Add in Rodney (W. Tre Davis) as the beleaguered waiter often caught in the middle of these small wars (who really just wants everyone to get along), and you’ve got a delicious evening of entertainment fit for a king. Or at least a smart audience.
We’ve seen the concept of Harry before – an eccentric, often uncontrollable idiot savant who, because of their unmistakable talent, is given more leeway than most. The doctor who flaunts authority, the lawyer who skirts the rules, the soldier or cop who won’t obey orders. What makes Harry different, and what makes the show different, is Theresa Rebeck. Besides the sharp one liners and fluid pacing, Rebeck doesn’t give us one dimensional characters. This is a very funny show but it’s not a sitcom. There is a deep reason behind what these people say and do and more than that, there is an understanding. Harry will reluctantly admit he’s often unreasonable, and selfish, and in many ways his own worst enemy, but he also believes that this combination of qualities is what makes him the artist he is. Take away the eccentricities and you take away the talent. Take away the talent and what’s left is ordinary. It’s something Emily seems to understand as well.
In the second act the restaurant is brimming over with success. What was once a small business barely breaking even is now making a profit. To ensure the future, however, Emily uses a seemingly endless degree of influence and contacts to land the restaurant a major food critic. (We all assume it’s the Times, although it’s taken pains to make sure that this is not explicit.) Both Mike and Rodney feel strongly that Harry needs to be told ahead of time, but Emily is reluctant. Given how Harry reacted to the good review on his scallops, what acts of self sabotage might he come up with this time? Rebeck keeps us all guessing and just when you think the plot is going one way it takes a sharp and emotional left turn. Without giving too much away, the ending of the show leaves a lump in your throat the size of a New York cheesecake.
Theresa Rebeck is one of the most accomplished playwrights of the past thirty years, male or female, and the script is one of her best but a production like this doesn’t work unless all the elements are there. It’s kind of like baking a souffle; one ingredient is out of whack and the whole thing falls apart. Moritz Von Stuelpnagel directs the show with a surefire touch, knowing when to keep things moving and when to stop and let the play breathe. The opening of the second act is sublime, watching Harry prepare and cook his own meal in silence, unhurried and meticulous. I have no idea whether Esparza actually knows how to cook, but he looks like he knows how to cook, and that’s all that matters. Esparza is marvelous as the complex, insecure ego-maniac who has everyone around him walking on egg shells. Harry is charismatic because Esparza is charismatic. Played by a lesser actor he could become an extremely unlikable narcissist we don’t want to spend two hours with. As it is, despite his tantrums and his childish behavior and refusal to accept reality, we miss him when he’s off the stage. Krysta Rodriguez is wonderful as the take-no-prisoners Emily, adept at letting those around her feel they are steering the ship when all along we know it’s she who is in control. As Mike, David Mason skirts a fine line between being the victim of Harry’s capricious moods and whims and knowing where and when to put his foot down, consequences be damned. And as for the appealing W. Tre Davis, we feel for him as the only one in the restaurant who ‘has no agenda’ and just when you wish Ms. Rebeck had made him a more integral part of the story, what do you know….she does just that.
The production elements are up to the usual MCC high standards. The set design by Tim Mackabee looks cramped and suffocating when you first see it but by the end you realize it’s exactly what the play needed. The costume design by Tilly Grimes, the lighting by David Weiner and the sound design by Palmer Hefferan all form a cohesive unit which seems perfectly in sync with Stuelpnagel’s vision.
There are minor quibbles; there’s an unlikely and unnecessary love affair tossed in which doesn’t seem to really come from anything or go to anywhere. Plus the whole point of Harry’s genius might be undercut if what he does is something which could be replicated as easily and successfully as the play seems to indicate. But if you’ll forgive me, these are small potatoes compared to the sumptuous main course offered up by Ms. Rebeck.
Additional information about “Seared”