Raúl Esparza in ‘Seared.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Move over, Gordon Ramsay. We know the world of Theresa Rebeck’s Seared well.
In the East Coast premiere of Rebeck’s play at MCC Theater, Chef Harry (Raúl Esparza) and his business partner Mike (David Mason) have opened a modest spot in Brooklyn. When a blurb about Harry’s scallop dish lands on the pages of New York Magazine and catapults the restaurant from obscurity to best bite, Emily (Krysta Rodriguez), a consultant with big ideas, arrives to amp up the operation.
Harry’s uncompromising perfectionism becomes his Achille’s heel. It’s a theme not unfamiliar to Rebeck. Her recent work, Bernhardt/Hamlet, examined French actress Sarah Bernhardt’s efforts to stay relevant in a male-dominated theater industry. She’s written candidly about her experience on the short-lived TV series Smash. Rebeck resiliently forges ahead, having made her Off-Broadway directorial debut this past summer with Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson. Though not on stage, she appears in much of Seared as the playwright continues to wrestle with themes that have emerged throughout her career.
Amid Rebeck’s occasionally talky script, that is, at times, too self-aware, the actors hustle around scenic designer Tim Mackabee’s realistic set, which is equipped with a functioning gas range, running water and a commercial fridge. Esparza chops, sears and plates with authority, handling his chef’s knife with the kind of confidence I’ve seen from real-life chefs. Never mind that he double dips a utensil into a condiment before adding a scoop to a sauté pan, or tops a piece of crispy fish with a chutney that would likely render it soggy.
Like any masterful dish, a play is only as good as the sum of its parts, and Esparza and Mason are great sparring partners. Esparza elicits empathy in spite of his character’s flaws and sense of entitlement, such as when Harry assumes his waiter, Rodney (W. Tré Davis), likes lima beans because he’s black and later rages about Emily’s involvement, saying, “You tell me that I’m supposed to suddenly be ‘consulting’ with some girl.” Mason, meanwhile, discovers levels in Mike’s exasperation, which ranges from financial fears and betrayal to the delicate balance between craft and commerce.
Rebeck’s positions Emily as the voice of reason and action in a male-dominated industry. And while some might find the character’s professional manipulations ethically questionable, she certainly gets more done than the pair had managed on their own, though Rodriguez never quite digs deep enough to reveal the underbelly of Emily’s fervor.
Nor does the script provide a logical explanation for Rodney’s emotional investment or culinary chops when a critic arrives at the eleventh hour. It’s in this moment of histrionics that Rebeck’s play veers toward schtick, with director Moritz von Stuelpnagel navigating the cast through a maddening dinner preparation and service.
The server-turned-chef is, perhaps, the most enlightened of the bunch. “All this bullshit you’ve been spouting? Everything you think you know! That cost you everything,” explains Rodney. “Not because somebody stabbed you in the back. That’s because you won’t bow to it. You won’t bow to your own talent.”
Ego and fear are like oil and vinegar. No matter how hard you try, they’ll never combine. Add a bit of mustard (or compassion or empathy), though, and you create a vinaigrette. Rebeck’s recipe for Seared has all the elements. If the proportions sometimes feel a bit off, no matter. It’s a dish to savor.
The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
511 West 52nd Street, NYC
Through December 15
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. His culture writing has appeared in Dramatics Magazine and on TDF Stages and ShowTickets.com. Matthew is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a past fellowship recipient from The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.