Theater: Slice of life

Theater: Slice of life

‘Seared’ needs some work to unite pieces

Harry (Brian Dykstra) and Rodney (Larry Powell) get ready for a big night at the restaurant in ‘Seared,’ now playing at the San Francisco Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

By Charles Brousse

Theater culture is rife with maxims about how to succeed, and sometimes they can be at odds with each other in the same play. Such is the case, I think, with San Francisco Playhouse’s current production of Theresa Rebeck’s Seared, a company-commissioned drama that is receiving its world premiere run through November 12.

For example, there’s the widely held belief among theater artists that an audience will be more involved if it can be persuaded to overlook the fact that what they are witnessing on stage isn’t real—if, in showbiz jargon, there is a “suspension of disbelief.” This strategy is especially  effective when dealing with a slice-of-life script such as Rebeck’s, and the Playhouse production team goes all out to achieve it.

The experience begins even before the first lines of dialogue are spoken. People entering the theater are greeted with the sight of designer Bill English’s miniaturized but still convincing version of a working, fully equipped restaurant kitchen. A steaming pot fills the air with the distinctive odor of boiling onions. There are storage cabinets, a refrigerator and a waist-level cutting board that is the locus of much of the action. In every detail it’s the kind of place that one might find in an actual high-end Brooklyn niche eatery, the play’s setting.

As the lights come up, master chef Harry (Brian Dykstra) is deftly chopping condiments to go with the seared scallops that have attracted a devoted following among those who want the best and have the means to pay for it. Unfortunately, however, this particular night is not going smoothly. Faced with a shortage of fresh scallops, Harry refuses to substitute the frozen variety, despite the warnings of his business partner Mike (Rod Gnapp) and Rodney (Larry Powell), their sole server/chef’s assistant, that customers may decide to leave if they aren’t offered a decent replacement. Nor does Mike’s suggestion that the restaurant could fail if it doesn’t expand and offer less expensive menu options have any effect. Harry considers himself to be an artist, who cares about his reputation, the tangible human consequences of his work, and the purity of the creative process, not crass financial considerations.

Over the following days, the rift between the two men deepens as both cling to their polarized  positions. Looking for support, Mike hires a bouncy young consultant named Emily (Aily Roper, understudy for Alex Sunderhaus), who, after her efforts to bring about a reconciliation falter, stays on to put her training to work as a member of the permanent staff.

So far, so good. The first act ends with Seared’s central issue—art vs. the marketplace—well defined, as are the characters of the two protagonists. (Emily and

Rodney are underwritten, but there’s no great harm done.) As far as I could tell, the audience was totally involved and there was a palpable sense of expectation that an exciting denouement would occur after intermission.

Alas, here’s where another familiar theatrical adage kicks in: Second acts are treacherous. If they don’t propel the story forward with new insights and a well-thought-out conclusion, they can undermine the whole venture. Rebeck provides neither. For nearly an hour, the core argument is repeated and teased without getting much of anywhere except to raise the hostility level between Harry and Mike. After that, it becomes a guessing game as to which of them will grab one of those razor sharp knives on the cutting board and plunge it into the other’s chest. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen, but, as the threat fades, so does the carefully nurtured tension, until the only question left is who will abandon ship first.

So, what are we left with? Half a play that’s brilliantly written, acted by an expert ensemble and adroitly staged by Margarett Perry on Bill English’s spot-on set, and half that should go back to the drawing board. As this is Seared’s world premiere, there’s plenty of time to fix things before it moves on. Since the setting and theme remain the same throughout, perhaps it might help to conflate the two acts into one tightly organized 90-minute show. Only a suggestion.

NOW PLAYING: Seared runs through November 12 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St. (second floor, Kensington Hotel), San Francisco; 415/677-9596;  


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