Chef Harry Feels the Burn in Seared

Theresa Rebeck's play, at San Francisco Playhouse, tackles a restaurant's preparation for an esteemed food critic's visit.

Harry and Rodney (Larry Powell) getting ready for a big night at the restaurant. (Jessica Palopoli)

Sometimes an uncomplicated bite is all that you’re looking for on a menu, or in this case, a theater outing. In culinary terms, the play Seared is an amuse-bouche with a temporary burst of heat followed by a mild finish. What that means in theatrical terms is that the play is an easily digestible, if ultimately unmemorable, evening of entertainment. Like many a meal consumed over a lifetime, that’s just fine.

Theresa Rebeck is a seasoned playwright and television screenwriter. She created the short-lived TV series Smash, a behind-the-scenes look at the production of a Broadway show. In Seared, her new chef-centric play, she presents the back of the house in front of the audience. The setting is a yellow Tuscan kitchen outfitted with a working stovetop, hood and oven. The action begins as the sound system starts to emit a series of gurgling, bubbling and frying noises. It sounds as if Philip Glass had been given a soup pot, utensils, and olive oil in place of his everyday instruments.

The lights come up on Chef Harry (Brian Dykstra), a lone maestro perfecting one of his signature dishes, chopping vegetables and adjusting the mixture of spices. The restaurant that he co-owns with Mike (Rod Gnapp), his long time pal and business partner, has just received a rave write-up in New York magazine. It’s a mention, not a full review, but the unexpected attention is welcomed by Mike who manages the finances. Harry is both oblivious and indifferent to the financial viability and well-being of the restaurant. His only concern is the transformation of ordinary ingredients into ambrosia.

 Harry (Brian Dykstra) and Mike (Rod Gnapp) argue over the future of the restaurant. (Jessica Palopoli)

Harry (Brian Dykstra) and Mike (Rod Gnapp) argue over the future of the restaurant. (Jessica Palopoli)

 

To this duo, Rebeck adds two supporting characters. First there’s Rodney, the only waiter in the restaurant. As Rodney, Larry Powell steals every scene he appears in. He manages to turn flippant gay quips into meaningful line readings, not an easy feat. Powell’s voice crackles with warmth and energy: He understands that the waiter wants to keep his job without having the added duty of maintaining the peace in the workplace.

 Much of the play concerns itself with the fraternal bickering and heated battling that recurs between Harry and Mike. They’ve reached a boiling point. Harry is unwilling to serve anything but food products of the highest caliber; for him, only the finest scallops known to mankind. His unrelenting perfectionism bumps up against Mike’s attempt to keep the restaurant’s books in the black. For a couple of back-breaking years, Mike has enabled Harry’s every whim because his dishes are so satisfying. But that’s about to change when a prominent restaurant critic informs Mike that he plans to write a review.

In order to better prepare for the critic, Mike hires Emily (Alex Sunderhaus) a wunderkind business consultant, but he does so without letting Harry know. Eternally resistant to outside input, Harry reacts badly to Emily’s arrival. The playwright, by adding Emily to the distressed cast of characters, upsets the trio further by reforming them as an uneasy quartet. Although it’s a cliche for an actor to ask the director for his or her character’s motivation, in Seared, it’s a reasonable question.

Harry wants to maintain his chef’s, or as he sees it, his artistic integrity in the face of a greedy capitalist society. He stands high upon that soapbox but it’s clear why he’s doing so. Rodney and Mike have both found a sense of purpose and a second home and family on the job but they want to earn a living without working themselves to the bone.

And then there’s Emily. She certainly seems to love Harry’s food but what exactly does she want to achieve? Power? To be associated with a well-reviewed restaurant? Rebeck leaves the conception of Emily only partially rendered. Seared, like many dramedies before it, lives in a place between comedy and drama, while committing to neither. After all the hullabaloo about art versus commerce, the ending takes the audience to a comfortable and familiar place. It’s Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, not the kind that packs the house every night at Homeroom.

Seared, Through Nov. 12 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post, 415-677-9596.

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