|Larry Powell, Brian Dykstra, Rod Gnapp & Alex Sunderhaus|
The first sound heard is an enticing sizzle as oil hits a hot skillet, leading to a plume of white smoke rising from the stove as smells of onion and garlic waft into the first rows of the audience. That initial sizzle is only the beginning of a play that will snap, crackle, and pop with delicious humor, intrigue, and surprise over the next one hundred thirty fast-moving minutes. San Francisco Playhouse has once again found the recipe for a sure-fire hit as it serves up the world premiere of Therea Rebeck’s Seared, a scorching play where tempers boil over as the owners of a struggling but popular restaurant argue which is most important for long-term success: “my talent,” “my money,” or “scallops.”
For two and a half years, Harry and Mike have kept a small, sixteen-person-capacity restaurant chugging along by scouring the best of fish and food markets before dawn and then working along with waiter Rodney until near or past midnight to ensure Harry’s signature dishes delight their loyal, Brooklyn customers. A ‘best bet’ mention in the New York Magazine about their “hidden jewel” and especially about Harry’s fabulous scallops has customers demanding them, Harry stubbornly refusing to serve them, and Mike steaming because such new-found fame could help solve their (actually, mostly his) money problems.
|Brian Dykstra, Alex Sunderhaus & Rod Gnapp|
Into the stewing mixture of their daily arguments comes a new ingredient “purchased” in stealth by Mike -- a female consultant who looks like she just walked off the cover of a high-fashion magazine. Emily arrives full of gushing flattery and charm, spouting nebulous words straight out of some MBA’s organizational behavior class that could never be found in a recipe book. As she stirs the pot with ideas about sidewalk expansion, new knives and fixtures in the kitchen, and (God forbid) a printed menu, Mike sees new dollars pouring in, Rodney sees the kitchen temperature rising but not from the oven, and Harry sees a world where food no longer really matters all that much. What the three men fail to see is that Emily is setting up a permanent stool in the kitchen’s corner where she will not just advise but where she will actually rule as on a throne.
|Brian Dykstra as Harry|
The cast members of Seared absolutely burst with both subtly nuanced and rambunctiously bold flavors in their individual and collective performances. Brian Dykstra is gigantic in stature and in kitchen presence as the chef in command. He tends to speak in three-word pronouncements (“Vegans are idiots” ... “Money is fabrication”). He lures in his listeners with a sudden smile that may disappear a few words later as he makes proclamations like “People suck ... They do suck ... but food doesn’t.” When Harry is alone cooking over the hot stove, his slow, steady dance becomes a ballet of precise moves. But when he feels that his domain is in threat by too much talk of money and not enough of the merits of olive oil, his ire can quickly rise to near explosion as witnessed by his widened eyes, flailing extension of his big hands, or a mammoth body stomping and stamping like a two-year-old in a tantrum.
|Brian Dykstra & Rod Gnapp|
With urgency and intensity popping from every visible vein to the point of near explosion, co-owner and financier Mike speaks in breath-gasping, volume-rising diatribes as he tries to help a doubting, uninterested Harry see that the baby they birthed together is now in dire question of survival. With glasses perched on top of his head when they are not flung in circles for dramatic effect, wiry Rod Gnapp exudes a frenetic, nervous energy and desire for change “now” – all in full contrast to his boulder-like partner Harry resisting any new directions and ideas. But Mike does sometimes ease off just long enough to rediscover that thread of friendship and brotherhood the two owners share deep down, admitting with sincere, calm humility to Harry, “We have a moment right now ... We have earned it ... I don’t know what to do with it.”
|Brian Dykstra, Alex Sunderhaus & Rod Gnapp|
The person he believes does know what to do is the mysterious, young, and glamorous Emily. “She knows more ... She just knows more,” Mike pleads to a softening Harry. Alex Sunderhaus at first portrays an Emily that woos, tempts, and idolizes her way past Harry’s skeptical, even cynical view of her. She is full of words like “amazing,” “utterly,” and “class-A” as she describes his created fare and coaxes him into accepting more and more of her suggestions – leading Harry at one point to react with a smirk, “Wow, and that shit just comes right out of you.” Her advocated changes soon lead to growing crowds, new profits, and new pressures – pressures now largely emitting from a transformed Emily who has become much less consultant and much more boss in stance, tone, and intent.
Watching all this while rushing back and forth to serve patrons in the unseen front of house is Rodney, the hip, easy-going waiter who brings ounces of fun and pounds of loyalty to his job – undying devotion especially to Harry. As Rodney, Larry Powell employs a wide range of voices, pitches, and feigned dialects as he horses around in the kitchen. Rodney also is learning a lot more than anyone is guessing, leading to a gnocchi-creation performance that brings delighted audience response for a waiter suddenly turned chef.
That there are surprises waiting to pop out of the plot’s oven is an understatement as the play progresses. And one thing a meticulous, schedule-bound chef like Harry does not like is a surprise.
Director Margarett Perry leads a creative team’s efforts that ensure from the first bites that the evening’s visual, sensory, and theatrical feast will be Michelin quality. The fully functioning, industrial kitchen with richly stocked food pantry designed by Bill English and populated with every imaginable kitchen gadget and ingredient by Properties Designer Jacqueline Scott makes it easy to forget that we are actually looking at a temporary stage setting. Streams of music carrying hints of escaping steam or banging pots surround and massage the play’s action and changing scenes through the genius of Sound Designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker. Scenes often end with eventual darkness pausing for a moment until one character’s expression of surprise, doubt, or anger is spotlighted in a corner through the prowess of Robert Hand, Lighting Designer.
And the icing on the cake is the design that Tatjana Genser brings to each character’s wardrobe. Her restaurant outfits for the men begin with a neighborhood feel (baseball cap, purple shirt, crazy tee) and slowly morph into signs of new-found sophistication (long black apron, designer shirt/tie, chef beret). For Emily, she has designed a runway of wild-colored stilettos and tight skirts with revealing slits up the front.
Margarett Perry directs the comings and goings out of the kitchen with aplomb, using frozen pauses, mimed sequences, swinging doors, poised knives, and a dozen other fun and funny tricks to keep a tale tall in tension at just the right balance of serious and hilarious. She, the cast, and the creative team have dished up a Seared that has all the ingredients for another San Francisco Playhouse crowd pleaser.
Rating: 5 E
Seared continues through November 12, 2016 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street. Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli