It doesn’t matter how often you say it, how you say it, or how well you sell it. No amount of dialogue in the world will convince me that a plate of salmon and asparagus is a revelation.
At least not in the world of Theresa Rebeck’s Seared at MCC. This play is exactly what you think it is: an unruly genius chef is allowed to be an asshole because people like his restaurant, and his cultural footprint only affects his neighborhood regulars and the occasional food writer. Somehow, he has a friend and is also complicatedly sexy. An overqualified woman is introduced to save his business, yet she is constantly insulted and undermined. He treats people poorly and wastes expensive ingredients, but oh, his titular seared scallops!
Commissioned by San Francisco Playhouse for its 2016-2017 season, Seared is a clear byproduct of the chef-centric pop culture boom from the last decade that reached peak mainstream saturation in the few years prior to the play’s premiere. Think of Gordon Ramsey’s television empire built almost entirely on international schadenfreude. Bradley Cooper baring his soul and his forearms in a chef’s jacket. Anthony Bourdain’s rise from famed bad boy chef to intensely honest writer and documentarian. More than ever before, celebrity chef culture became open to the public, and what we found, especially as collective consciousness around mental health and workplace safety improved, evolved from entertaining to transparently bleak within just a few years.
The term “toxic masculinity” gets thrown around a lot to explain harmful behavior caused by the socialized need to prove personal strength through anger and brutality, as if these things are synonymous with performing maleness. To recognize a cause is not the same as problematizing it, so writing a play that touches on toxic masculinity within the restaurant industry without actually acknowledging its very real, violent ramifications is a purposely missed opportunity. This doesn’t make Seared a bad play (the predictable dialogue and boring structure make it a bad play), but it does make it a passive, irrelevant play.
In addition to a text that doesn’t bother to question the dated set of tropes it employs, this production (directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel) is so aspirationally naturalistic that when it fails, it fails miserably. Like anything that requires extraordinary skill, the performed simulation of cooking is automatically fighting against the inherent expectations of its audience. Even if an audience is wholly ready to suspend their disbelief, the sight of wet faux pasta slopping out of an obviously cold pan and into a readied dish neutralizes any faith in the characters’ belief that this gnocchi surprise will ultimately save their restaurant from ruin.
It also doesn’t help that this chef—Harry (Raúl Esparza), whose entire personality is summed up by the hypothetical image of him arguing with his local artisan butcher while wearing a leather jacket—keeps low-grade, grocery store olive oil in his pantry and stores his special jarred anchovies in a defunct appliance right over the stove where the constant heat would definitely ruin them, if not make the containers explode. He ceremoniously uses a $600 knife for the first time to cut an onion into tragically uneven slices. A dinner rush is excitedly announced to a quiet kitchen coming from a seemingly silent dining room.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t necessarily a call for more naturalism, and there are heightened moments, particularly in scene transitions when the set is lit in bright washes of saturated color and underscored by electronic lounge music and jazz clearly meant to tie the show together (a remix of Billie Holiday’s version of “Speak Low” is part of the pre-show soundtrack). Occasionally, Harry’s cooking is depicted in lightly choreographed, silent scenes and punctuated with music. But these few departures from realism feel disparate from the rest of the piece without origin or objective. So this production of Seared is neither good at naturalism nor committed to imagining the action in the script outside reality, and the lack of clear perspective is dissatisfying.
The cast does well enough, having been given the impossible task of making these characters into human beings rather than the mere three-dimensional concepts the script suggests. Krysta Rodriguez boldly manages to manifest inner life in Emily, even though her character is primarily a foil to Harry, Mike, and Rodney, yet also sexualized or posed as a parental antagonist when convenient.
If you were thinking of going to see Seared, hoping for a thoughtful, sharp ensemble piece with the thrill of live cooking, I suggest you cancel your reservation.