Harry played by Raúl Esparza in Seared, Theresa Rebeck’s latest play to reach New York, is a genius chef, a consummate professional, in a tiny 16 seat restaurant he has started in Brooklyn with Mike, a long-time friend. However, he is also self-destructive and temperamental. When a New York Magazine critic raves about his scallops, he refuses to make them ever again. He demands only the best and finest cuts of meat and fresh fish, which means going to the markets at 5 AM in the morning on days they are open, and finding them elsewhere on days when the markets are closed. He will not compromise his ideals for anyone or anything including the success of the restaurant.
Unfortunately, Mike is out of money and when the rent goes up (not if) they will be out of business. Emily, a new patron and an ambitious food consultant, offers to help, and Mike jumps at the chance to stay afloat and possibly make a profit for the first time. Little by little, Emily makes her presence felt: new tables and chairs, new plates and silverware, new knives, a permit for 12 seats on the sidewalk, their first menus, etc. She has to fight Harry every step of the way as he wants no one treading on his territory, his kitchen. When Emily requests a new signature dish to replace the scallops, Harry comes up with a delicious wild salmon, a fish more difficult to come by than fresh scallops. And when Emily invites a major food critic to review the restaurant without telling Harry in advance, the table is set for a major showdown.
As directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the play is fast-paced and engrossing and the smell of garlic coming from the stage convinces us that real cooking is going on. The completely working industrial kitchen designed by Tim Mackabee is a wonder of economy on the small stage of the Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater at The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space as we watch many meals get prepared in record time. The flaw in the play is that Esparza’s Harry spends so much time ranting about his beliefs and requirements that he becomes both tiresome and unsympathetic. Harry may be an artist fighting capitalist necessities, but he also sabotages his own success. We eventually discover that he is not as ethical as he pretends to be even though he claims not to care about money – or adulations. And as none of the money in the restaurant is his, ultimately he has no say in what is decided.
As the genius chef, we watch Esparza chop, sauté, cut, sear, cook, and plate real meals at a speed that is breathtaking. He is every inch the true if eccentric professional. He gives a big performance of this temperamental genius who lives for his work. However, he does not show us the man underneath who became this automaton who has no use for other people or their needs. Krysta Rodriguez, on the other hand, as Emily is always upbeat, perky, self-assured, enthusiastic. She always knows the right thing to say to influence people and has the contacts to back up her promises. However, she also very quickly becomes domineering and overbearing as she refuses to see that she may be making changes too fast for the staff, in particular Harry, its star player.
To some extent, David Mason and W. Tré Davis balance each other as owner Mike and Rodney, the restaurant’s only other waiter. Mason is glum, gruff and depressed as the owner/manager who fears seeing his two and half years of work with no time off going down the drain. Davis as the loyal Rodney, on the other hand, is always cheerful, amusing, rolls with the punches and never complains about anything. David Weiner’s lighting suggests various times of day, while Palmer Hefferan’s sound design includes pop and jazz before each scene. The costumes by Tilly Grimes which are most detailed for Emily clue us into the passing days and weeks of the play.
Theresa Rebeck’s Seared is an accomplished though obsessive workplace play, being billed as a comedy but it is more of a drama in its confrontations and clashes. While it may be totally accurate to what goes on in some restaurant kitchens, it contains the kind of leading protagonist who makes you lose interest in both the play and the topic. The theme may be art versus commerce but Rebeck has stacked the deck a bit too much to one side. Not the only play to take place exclusively in a kitchen, Seared never really lets us know the private lives of the characters so that we can care about them and why we should want them to succeed.
Seared (extended through December 22, 2019)
MCC Theater in association with Williamstown Theatre Festival
The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater, 511 W. 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-506-9393 or visit http://www.mcctheater.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission