By Alli Cruz
Theresa Rebeck’s new play “Seared” received a rather hearty welcome at the San Francisco Playhouse. Its premiere marks Rebeck’s first theatrical release since her work on “Smash,” a popular musical television show which she not only created, but also co-produced. Rebeck’s dramatic skills, both on screen and on stage, do not fail to impress.
“Seared” takes place in a small, up-and-coming restaurant in Brooklyn, with a talented (and egotistical) chef taking center stage. Chef Harry is without a doubt a culinary genius – after all, his mouth-watering dishes earn his restaurant a rave review from one of the most prestigious food critics in town. On the surface, Harry’s precise methods, coupled with his burning passion for the art of food, appear to be a perfect recipe for success. But when his restaurant co-owner, Mike, brings a profit-oriented consultant named Emily into the mix, tempers begin boiling through that once-palatable surface, and the kitchen and its staff are thrown right in the middle of a struggle between authenticity and capitalistic greed.
SFP’s production is a delectable conglomeration of witty dialogue, colorful characters and wonderfully simplistic design elements. The show smells like a hit to me, and that’s not just because of the garlic and balsamic-infused aroma permeating the theatre.
That’s right — actual cooking took place onstage. Salmon, salad, you name it — it was on the menu and in the air. This added element not only drove home the idea of artistic authenticity (as espoused by the character Harry during his monologue about the reality of food and insubstantial nature of money), but made the experience feel all the more inclusive, drawing the audience into the story with a plethora of sensory details. The sharp dialogue grabbed my attention, but the enticing aroma held it throughout the show. It made me feel personally invested: When Harry hurriedly finished cooking a meal — spices simmering, impatience rising — I felt my own stress levels rising. Augmenting the food-heavy atmosphere, each scene ended with a distinct searing noise, a subtle decision made by designer Theodore J.H. Hulkser.
Visually, the set, designed by Bill English, was a feast for the eyes. Filling the entirety of the intimate stage space, this kitchen backdrop was truly an intricate work of art, complete with a run-down toaster oven, a fully-functioning stove, a silver-steel fridge and even a storage closet (which was nearly out of the audience’s line of sight), stocked full of food and supplies.
Brian Dykstra as Chef Harry peels back, onion-style, the layers of his character: Calculated, slow, maybe even inspiring a couple of tears. Dykstra maintains a gruff voice as he challenges Mike (Rod Gnapp) and his questionable intentions with the restaurant. Dykstra’s imposing stature and sharp movements establish a palpable dominance onstage, which reinforces his character’s arrogance and self-importance. Whether he leans over the counter to sneer or wave an intimidating finger at Emily (Alex Sunderhaus), Dykstra maintains his commanding force. All in all, he’s a gotta-hate-him but gotta-love-him sort of guy.
During the cooking scenes, when Dykstra stands alone onstage, you can’t help but get the sense that you are truly peeking into the world of a professional chef. There is something deeply personal about the way in which he regards the food, swiftly chopping the vegetables and searing the meat with such a calm and quiet demeanor – a stark contrast to his usual jaded humor and loud movements.
Larry Powell as Rodney also serves up a standout performance. A sassy and rather flamboyant young waiter, Powell provides a substantial argument against the idea of “selling out” to success in an enticing and comical manner.
Perhaps the most interesting dynamic is the one between Emily and Harry, the two opposing forces of the play. Emily’s hyper-focused desire to make money, contrasted with Harry’s faithfulness to his art, provides refreshing commentary on the corruptive nature of capitalist greed. Sunderhaus highlights her distinctly two-faced character through shifts in vocal tone and body language, changing from a wide smile and sweetly feminine tone to narrowed eyes and impatient sighs.
Gnapp’s Mike is caught in the middle of their struggle, nervously fiddling with glasses as he subtly displays his character’s indecision. His voice is shaky and uncertain at times and his hand gestures are small and limited, establishing his weak authoritative force. When a shocking realization about loyalty hits his character at the end of the play, Gnapp’s shoulders sink and he seems to crumble into himself, unable to withstand the weight of his ill-gotten success.
“Seared” provides powerful social commentary on the nature of capitalism, raising the questions: Can we reconcile art and money in a world driven by greed? Does something need to be fundamentally changed about our society? Rebeck’s expertly served, ambiguous ending leaves us — the audience — to cook up our own answers.
A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Brian Dykstra’s name as Bill Dykstra.