Seared, by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Hoon Lee as Harry; W. Tre Davis as Rodney; photo: Daniel Rader
"Reality works in very small doses."
Michael Esper, Hoon Lee; photo: Daniel Rader
I'll say it up-front. "Seared" is one of the finest plays of the season anywhere. Theresa Rebeck's homage to cooking, to restaurants, for all I know to the recently deceased Anthony Bourdain, is a funny, dramatic exercise in frustration, love, the adoration of a devoted chef to his art and, most important of all, a paeon to the creation of a craftsman with the possible future of becoming a culinary master. The play constantly surprises. There is never a stagnant moment as friends clash over the smallest things and drawn knives threaten the sanctity of such a moment in The Rumble in West Side Story for seriousness. There is no Leonard Bernstein to make this special, it just is because it is the ultimate distortion of function, an odd transgression for a chef to take with his primary tool.
Michael Esper plays Mike, the money behind a small, boutique restaurant in Brooklyn on the brink of outrageous success due to a new "signature" dish created by his partner, Harry, the chef. A magazine mention of the dish causes a stir and a sensation and an aggravated reaction from the chef who refuses to ever make the scallops again. This begins the crack in their relationship, the fissure that will escalate into a chasm. As played by Hoon Lee, Harry is a hothead with an insatiable desire for perfection and a charming lack of charm to help him achieve that goal. When Mike brings in a consultant, Emily, played by Krysta Rodriguez, everything goes to Hell - without even a handbasket - and the partnership flounders.
Yes, this is a comedy, so things do work out - sort of - by the end of the play but if this can be considered a happy ending than there is big trouble ahead for at least three of the four players in this board game of Life.
Hoon Lee, Krysta Rodriguez; photo: Daniel Rader
Rodriguez is amazing as the flirtatious, self-serving, manipulative consultant who is never above using her body as well as her mind to get what she sets out to get. Emily is a bombshell with an actual bomb in her bag of tricks. Good at her game, she plays for high stakes with Harry and Mike, never realizing that her rudeness to a waiter named Rodney could become her undoing or her salvation depending on how she plays him. Rodriguez has a wonderful way with the language Rebeck has set down for her. She can twist a simple line into sly insult just by changing her physical presence. She is the woman behind the subtle character she plays and her femininity in high heels is unquestioned here. She is so successful in this role that I would advise all men to steer clear of her, for if she wants something from you I would bet she could get it no matter the obstacles in her path.
Esper plays a man whose patience is short, whose tolerance is tested time and again, whose desires are uncertain with one exception: he needs to make money through his massive investment in Harry. The actor and his director rarely give us enough contact with Mike; we are always at arms' length from the character. Mike's anger flairs but it doesn't overwhelm us. His humor is minimal when it comes to his business and as for human relationships, the author hasn't really hinted at any. Esper brings a unique invention to this role, a disconnect that leaves the other characters constantly on the far side of a wall he carries with him. He is talking to them, making his points, expressing his feelings, but nothing truly gets through the stones, mortar and twigs that comprise his defense mechanism. It was fascinating watching Mike, as played by Esper, live out his own monodrama amidst three other people on stage and a host of unseen characters behind the swinging door.
Set in the restaurant's kitchen, a set by Tim Mackabee that is totally practical so that freezing, cooking, washing are all actually done in this play, the outside world including the dining room are kept as part of the other place where these three people only play peripheral roles. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel plays the part of choreographer as well, keeping all four people in almost constant motion interacting, relocating, skirting one another for dramatic purposes that spark comic reactions from the audience. His work on this play is akin to the engine in a lawnmower constantly pulling from the pushing motions that allow it to work. This, of course, is outside of his other function, keeping the characters and their dramas real and vital.
W. Tre Davis; photo: Daniel Rader
While Hoon Lee's Harry seems to be the center of this comedy, he is actually the angry motivator for another character who emerges late in the play as the actual central character. Until the final scene Lee is wonderfully explosive, highly expressive and dynamically central in all of his scenes no matter who else he is interacting with at the moment. His voice is fabulous and his dialogue sounds like operatic recitative. It is hard to pay attention to anyone else when he is on a topic,a tear, or a torturous internalized tantrum. It is a wonderful performance.
However, it is W. Tré Davis as the restaurant's only waiter who ultimately steals the show from Harry as his character, Rodney, steps up, steps in, and steps out of character to become the heir apparent to the greatness Harry assumes is his own. Rodney is an interacter, a man who pays attention and who has unexpressed desires of his own beyond the good tip from the customer. Early on in the play he takes charge of a simple aspect of the restaurant's work, an action that pleases Mike, disturbs Emily and is ignored for the most part by Harry. It is only later, much later, that this seed planted by Rebeck grows into a flowering shrub. This is really what the play is about, the creation of a new talent, a new ego, a new flawed if fabulous person. Davis plays all the aspects of Rodney with exactly the right amount of rigor and response. He is a presence of one sort or another from the outset, but isn't really the man he is meant to be until he has to be that man. I loved watching his progress in the role.
Tilly Grimes costumes are appropriate at all times and David Weiner's lighting serves the show very well. Von Stuelpnagel keeps the show alive and active and intriguing and Rebeck herself has the honored role of author of this fascinating look behind the scenes of restaurant life. It is one of her very best pieces and so very worth seeing that it is a shame to have such a limited number of opportunities to see the play in Williamstown where it is having a brief run.
This is the sort of show that almost demands an in-house recording so that this company can play it eternally. Hoon Lee's work should live on, as should W. Tré Davis's performance. Michael Esper as ever-present sparring partner with Lee gives a performance that should be recorded for other actors to watch and Krysta Rodriguez has defined the intellectual slut to a tee. Catch this if you can. This is, at the last, a play that will not disappoint - on some level you will find something that rattles your own belief system and makes an impression.
Seared plays through August 4 in the Nikos Theatre at the '62 Center for Theater and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. For information and tickets go to wefestival.org or call the box office at 413-458-3253.