'Seared': Theater Review

SEARED - Production Still - H 2019
Joan Marcus
Deliciously cooked.

Raúl Esparza stars in the new comedy by Theresa Rebeck, author of 'Seminar' and 'Mauritius' and creator of NBC's 'Smash,' about a stubborn chef who clashes with a restaurant consultant.

The second act of Theresa Rebeck's new comedy Seared begins with a six-minute scene containing not a single line of dialogue. It features Raúl Esparza, playing a supremely talented but emotionally volatile chef, preparing a dish of seared wild salmon. Working with real ingredients on a functioning kitchen set, the actor chops, slices, sautés and finally sears a large piece of salmon seasoned with shallots, capers, onion and spices and accompanied by asparagus spears. His rapid-fire movements are precise, elegant and thoughtful, as the delicious smells of what he's cooking begin to fill the small theater. It may be the sexiest scene you'll see onstage this year.

First seen last summer at Williamstown Theater Festival and now receiving its New York premiere at MCC Theater, Seared is a fast-paced workplace comedy that even non-foodies will find hilarious. Set in a tiny restaurant in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope, the play revolves around the existential conflict between its stressed-out, financially beleaguered owner Mike (David Mason, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and his partner Harry (Esparza), whose brilliance in the kitchen is exceeded only by his prickly stubbornness.

The restaurant seems on the verge of breaking out thanks to a rave in New York Magazine that specifically singled out Harry's scallop dish. They've since been besieged by new customers wanting to try it, so Mike naturally wants to make the dish a regular menu item. But Harry refuses, on the basis that the high-quality scallops he insists on are only rarely available. Observing the heated battles over the issue is Rodney (W. Tré Davis), the restaurant's young waiter and sole employee, who frequently finds himself in the position of playing peacemaker.

"We're not a big enough establishment to be idiosyncratic," argues Mike about Harry's refusal to cook their new signature dish. "I'm not feeling the scallops," Harry casually informs him.

The tension between the two men becomes further exacerbated by the arrival of Emily (Krysta Rodriguez, The Addams Family, NBC's Trial and Error), a restaurant consultant whom Mike has hired without bothering to inform his partner. Sexy, supremely confident and bursting with ideas to boost the profitability of the struggling business, Emily quickly manages to push all of Harry's buttons, especially when she informs him that she's giving the restaurant a "makeover."

The resulting clash of wills between the equally matched Harry and Emily, which is not without some surprising developments, forms the heart of the play. Emily proves to be very good at her job, miraculously cutting through bureaucratic red tape to secure the restaurant an outdoor seating permit and even procuring a variety of extremely pricey knives for Harry to use for free. The latter perk proves irresistible even for him, as demonstrated by his near-orgasmic sigh when he tries one out by slicing an apple.  

Under Emily's marketing savvy, the restaurant becomes a sensation. But Harry still refuses to cook the scallop dish for which the customers are clamoring. Under pressure to create a new signature dish, he perversely develops one based on wild salmon, an even harder fish to procure, and adamantly refuses to resort to farmed salmon as an alternative, spitting out the word "farmed" as if it were an epithet. A new crisis emerges when Emily and Mike arrange for a visit by an important restaurant critic and don't inform Harry until the night he arrives.

Seared is not without its flaws, to be sure. The play lives up to its title by rarely getting more than surface deep. The characterizations are shallow at best, particularly the ambitious Emily who borders on stereotype and whose motivations remain oblique. The show could easily be cut by a half-hour, becoming repetitive in Act II as its characters too often engage in lengthy circular shouting matches.

But the play remains very entertaining anyway, thanks to Rebeck's talent for fast and funny, profane dialogue. The widely produced playwright (Seminar, Mauritius, NBC's Smash) seems to have immersed herself in the restaurant world for this project, which benefits greatly from its detailed sense of authenticity. There's so much real food cooked onstage on Tim Mackabee's ultra-realistic set that you wind up feeling cheated when free samples aren't provided. (Although he's listed far down in the program's credits, "Chef Consultant" Ben Liquet deserves special kudos.)

Under the superb, precisely choreographed direction of Moritz Von Stuelpnagel (Hand to God, Present Laughter), the actors go through their frenetic verbal and physical paces like expert farceurs. The four-time Tony-nominated Esparza —  who's been acting up a storm on New York City stages since the conclusion of his multiyear stint on Law & Order: SVU and who exudes intensity even at his most seemingly relaxed proves perfect casting as the high-maintenance Harry, delivering a virtuoso performance. Rodriguez scores many laughs while managing to make the ultra-manipulative Emily surprisingly endearing; Mason is an able straight man as the stressed-out partner; and Davis nearly steals the show with his sly, low-key performance as the waiter who turns out to be far more resourceful than he initially seems.

If nothing else, Seared demonstrates that in the unlikely event his acting career ever fizzles out, Esparza has a promising calling in the culinary arts to fall back on.

Venue: The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, New York
Cast: W. Tré Davis, Raúl Esparza, David Mason, Krysta Roderiguez
Playwright: Theresa Rebeck
Director: Moritz Von Stuelpnagel
Set designer: Tim Mackabee
Costume designer: Tilly Grimes
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Sound designer: Palmer Hefferan
Presented by MCC Theater