Theresa Rebeck's Seared Turns Up the Heat on One Brooklyn Restaurant
Harry is a talented chef. Everyone acknowledges that. And from the way he glides gracefully around the small Brooklyn kitchen depicted in Theresa Rebeck's Seared, we believe it. This is especially thanks to a nimble, passionate performance from Raúl Esparza, who seems to channel every hotshot chef I've ever met. But like the theater, restaurants are collaborative, and you're not going to make one successful if no one wants to work with you. The myth of the singular genius dies to the sound of uproarious laugher in this New York debut at MCC.
The truth is that Harry was never in this alone: His business partner, Mike (David Mason), actually fronted the capital for the restaurant, and he's the one balancing the books. Rodney (W. Tré Davis) waits tables and helps with the cleaning when the dishwasher is late (which is often). And while Harry's food is the main attraction, he has a curious habit of sabotaging his own success: When a food writer for New York praises his scallops, he pointedly refuses to cook them again, insisting that he is unable to consistently source scallops that are up to his standards. In his mind, money is no object in the quest for quality ingredients. He sermonizes, "Money is legal tender. It's nothing. It's a symbol for value, and it's paper and you can't eat it."
But it's real enough for Mike: He knows that one more rent hike on their Park Slope location will obliterate their already slim profit margin. He hires a consultant named Emily (Krysta Rodriguez) to introduce necessary reforms. Naturally, Harry is resistant, bristling at the notion that he now has to consult with "some girl" when he has always been the absolute monarch of his kitchen.
Esparza, who last year injected life into an undead production of Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, once again brings his scorching presence to the stage, this time in service of a much meatier text. His physicality is so captivating that we watch him silently cook for several minutes, absolutely rapt. His monologues are like arias, delivered with operatic grandeur and overwrought emotion. He's loud and ridiculous, and we completely understand how this bouillabaisse bully has been able to get his way for so long.
He meets his match in Rodriguez's sexy, self-assured Emily. Just like Harry, she's a stubborn Type A personality; but unlike him, she was raised as a woman and has learned how to get her way in more creative ways. She tempts Harry with a selection of expensive Japanese knives while flattering his ego. Will it be enough to convince him to double the number of tables by expanding to the sidewalk? "Every reasonably talented guy out there has been told that he's a f*cking genius at some point in his life," she privately observes to Mike, "and let me tell you they all believe it and they've been believing it since they were four which is frankly when they stopped developing psychologically."
Rebeck (whose last Broadway play was Bernhardt/Hamlet) has a knack for marinating big ideas in spicy language, which can feel dramatically undercooked when served by lesser performers. Luckily, all of the actors in Seared contribute to creating and sustaining the delicious tension in this play, while fully committing to every syllable of the script. Even when it's totally contrived, we're having too much fun to notice.
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel has established himself as the master of controlled chaos in plays like Hand to God, and his powers are on full display here. Audiences lean forward in their seats and lap up the scene, until some are literally shouting back at the stage. It's rare to see a New York audience invest that unreservedly in a show, but it feels like the obvious thing to do when the production is so invested in selling the script.
From the moment we enter, Tim Mackabee's set tells us what kind of restaurant this is: Every inch of shelf space is occupied, while boxes of wine are shoved wherever they might fit. In her costuming, Tilly Grimes identifies Emily as the clear outsider: While the men wear Kmart couture, she marches into the kitchen in tan pumps that match her oversize purse. She's pure Manhattan, and as the clothing choices of the men subtly change (a new leather jacket for Rodney, a striped apron for Harry), we are able to gauge her influence. David J. Weiner's lighting gives us a sense of the time of day in this windowless space. He and sound designer Palmer Hefferan collaborate to maintain a state of high anxiety with fast-paced jazzy transition music and a wash of red lighting.
It all makes for a thrilling night. Even if you know nothing about the restaurant business, you'll recognize the characters Rebeck is putting onstage. In her blunt, entertaining, thoroughly hilarious way, she makes one thing clear: Not one of them is irreplaceable.