You gotta love a play whose opening line is “Where’s the fennel?” and whose climax turns on a signature dish of scallops. This foodie/theater critic just ate it up. “SEARED” is the Gloucester Stage’s third production outdoors at the Windhover Performing Arts Center, a collection of rustic cabins and a stage set under a canopy of trees. Their latest show is the Boston area premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s comedy/drama about a talented but temperamental chef with a chip on his shoulder and sardines in his toaster oven– one of many quirks the staff puts up with because his food turns critics’ heads. As the play opens, a recent “Best Bet” mention in “New York Magazine” has just ignited a fire in his struggling Brooklyn kitchen.
As played by James Louis Wagner, Chef Harry is a long-haired outlaw who won’t pander, scorns American capitalism, and refuses to cook dishes on cue no matter who’s asking. Tall and lanky, Wagner is charismatically annoying as a gifted chef whose underlying problem is fear of the success he disdains.
Harry drives his partner Mike mad. Mike, intensely played by Matt Monaco, is sincerely practical and reacts to the critical attention by bringing in Emily, a consultant, to capitalize on this flicker of fame without first telling Harry, who immediately condescends and refuses to take advice from this “girl.” In some ways, she is more than a match for them both. The relentlessly upbeat and ambitious Emily played by Emily Bosco, is blithely unencumbered by personal loyalty and comfortable trading favors to get ahead. Her opportunism is disarming. She plays the angles, always has an exit strategy, and they’ll never see her coming or going. At the other end of the spectrum is the calm, clear-eyed Rodney, waiter, sous chef, busboy. He sees it all, has the best intentions, and no agenda save keeping this job. Jordan Pearson is perfect in this pivotal role and deftly delivers the funniest lines.
Rebeck pits these characters and their competing interests against one another on a single set, a real working kitchen that brims with concentrated energy, culinary and verbal. Harry’s food is never at issue but rather its relationship to commerce and art, marketing and creativity, money and authenticity. The performances are sharp though the play doesn’t cut deep. Rebeck keeps the issues clearly defined and humanely resolved, while director Victoria Gruenberg fans the flames by having them deliver huge chunks of dialogue at breakneck speed until the play erupts in a blaze of verbal fireworks and an interpersonal meltdown. Gruenberg builds it all back up again at the opening of Act II with an extended interlude of rapt silence as we watch Harry cook. I longed to smell whatever was sizzling in the pan and wished there had been a mirror tilted overhead so I could see the finished dish. Even so, the tension steadily heats up to a climax that left ME seared and on the verge of a heart attack.
Please forgive me–don’t waffle. SEE “SEARED” through August 22. Then have dinner at restaurant FRANK in nearby Beverly (run by illustrious chef Frank McClelland of L’Esapalier fame) whose brilliantly confident cuisine provided the second act of a delicious theatrical outing.