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Theatre in Review: Seared (MCC Theater)

Raúl Esparza. Photo: Joan Marcus.

In Seared, playwright Theresa Rebeck stirs up a terrific tempest in the kitchen of a tiny Brooklyn restaurant, but it is the director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who, with military precision, whips the action into comic chaos of a very high order. This is evident in the play's first scene, depicting a typical night at miniature Park Slope bistro that, thanks to an item in New York Magazine's Best Bets column, is suddenly under siege from an army of patrons all clamoring for the menu's signature scallops. Trouble is, Harry, the perverse, persnickety chef, no longer wants to make them, claiming that he can't find enough of the bivalves in question to meet his exacting standards. Meanwhile, waiters dash in and out, dinners sizzle on the stove, tempers explode, and pleas, curses, and insults are fly through the air like so many arrows. The clockwork accuracy of the scene's staging is a thing of beauty; one false move and a tangle of actors could end up piled on the floor.

Of course, the situation isn't sustainable. Harry is a so-called partner in the venture, but Paul, who oversees the front of the house, is the sole investor; two years in, with no profit to show for his efforts, he is getting panicky about it, especially since the possibility of a catastrophic rise in rent is omnipresent. Getting desperate, he introduces Emily, a chicly put together and unnervingly cheerful consultant, who swears she can help them realize their dreams. (In a prophecy of things to come, Emily enters just as Harry is furiously informing Paul, "Nobody tells me what to do.") It's a sign of her indefatigably upbeat attitude that, interrupting a screaming match between the men, she brightly notes, "Most people honestly don't know how to face conflict. But you do. It's an honor, honestly, to listen to you two argue. It's so pure."

Grudgingly won over to the plan and seduced by a new set of Japanese knives that can be his for free (plus a small endorsement), Harry tolerates Emily's invasive presence in his kitchen dictatorship. Of course, each of her ideas -- including the adoption of a printed menu -- becomes the occasion for a power struggle. (The textual analysis brought to bear on a dish that Emily names "wild salmon with a Bengali onion chutney and fresh spring asparagus" is a highlight.) But business booms, thanks in part to Emily's skill at obtaining a permit for sidewalk seating, and soon she is using a combination of sex and manipulation to play Harry and Paul against each other, all the while insisting that she is guiding them to a win/win finale. She overplays her hand, however, with her most aggressive maneuver, which involves a surprise appearance by a Times restaurant critic, unwittingly unleashing a revolution between courses.

Rebeck's script, as is common for her, has its holes: It's never really clear why Emily is so interested in this venture - what's in it for her? -- nor is there a full explanation for the costly new resources with which she gifts her clients. Then again, taken as a comic fable about art versus commerce -- or, perhaps, inspiration versus the demands of professionalism -- Seared is a reliably hilarious entertainment that benefits from solid comic construction, many sharp-tongued arias, and, thanks to the director, a furiously fast pace that can stop on a dime for a brilliantly considered pause. The playwright certainly has an acute eye for her characters and their sharp-elbowed ways. Emily might be an operator, but Harry and Paul are inflexible antagonists, locked in a conflict from which neither is willing to back down. Something has to happen, and why shouldn't a lady benefit, too? Rebeck also writes the kinds of scenes that bring out the best in a director: An Act II opening sequence, in which Harry, displaying the skill of a brain surgeon, silently prepares a new dish -- rattling pans, adding ingredients, and tasting his work experimentally -- is a small masterpiece of staging.

Part of von Stuelpnagel's skill is his eye for casting a play that is packed with explosive personalities. Raúl Esparza's Harry is a genius of sorts, in retreat from the world and pouring his many disappointments into the making of great food. (His paean to the power of butter is a mouth-watering treat.) A volcanic malcontent, he is at his fiercest and funniest in a speech denouncing money as an imaginary phenomenon, bereft of meaning when placed next to food skilfully served. But, handed one of those Japanese knives and slicing into an apple like butter, he beams with an almost religious ecstasy. And, in a moment of existential crisis, when his entire career seemingly depends on making that scallop dish, the concentration with which he contemplates the little mollusks is something to behold. Putting his trademark intensity to rather different purposes, Esparza offers what may be his drollest performance.

Krysta Rodriguez is more than his match as Emily, who doesn't enter a room without making an entrance, whose dialogue is loaded with every business buzzword known to makind -- she is big on helping others "maxmize their potential" -- and who is thoroughly, gleefully amoral about getting her way -- up to and including sleeping with Harry. Her extended wrangle with him about a new signature dish for the restaurant, a gorgeous salmon concoction destined never to be made, is pure high comedy. David Mason's Paul, exhausted by running a rat race between the kitchen and dining room for five hours every night, is another formidable sparring partner. And W. Tré Davis brings a light touch to the role of another waiter, who, despite his casual manner, can be every bit as difficult as Harry when the occasion calls for it.

The production's design helps to ground these sharp-edged connivings in recognizable reality. Tim Mackabee's intensively detailed set looks like it could feed multitudes. David Weiner's lighting burnishes every detail, adding super-saturated bi-color washes for the scene changes. Tilly Grimes' costumes draw amusing contrasts between the men's unstylish outfits and Emily's coordinated ensembles. Palmer Hefferan's sound design includes some tasty jazz sequences to set the right percussive mood.

The real news of the evening, however, is von Stuelpnagel, who gives the proceedings the polish and punch of a golden-age Broadway comedy. He and his gifted cast enliven this comedy of scullery skullduggery, generating some wickedly tasty fun. --David Barbour

(29 October 2019)

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