Seared

by Adam Brinklow

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 3, 2016

Eat before seeing "Seared" at SF Playhouse. A full meal, not a light one. There's quite a bit of cooking onstage, and some of the scents that drift into the audience are just plain unfair.

Anybody who has ever worked a restaurant job may need a trigger warning for this brand new play by Theresa Rebeck (who penned previous Playhouse productions "Seminar" and "The Scene"). It's all here: The late hours, the demanding customers, the sealed envelope of the kitchen as a world all its own, and, most of all, the egos.

Brian Dykstra (previously Byron in the Playhouse's wonderful "Jerusalem") is the brilliant but defiant chef of a hot New York restaurant. Rod Gnapp (from Aurora Theatre's "The Monster-Builder") is his long-suffering manager and business partner. Wunderkind waiter Rodney (Larry Powell, who we wish was in more of this show) is the only element balancing their yin and yang night in and night out.

Harry hates the idea of fame and success; all he cares about is integrity and doing things his way. Mike (not unreasonably) worries about his bottom line. Into this mess comes the chaos-strewing golden apple of Emily ("Hookman's" Alex Sunderhaus), a too-polished consultant who promises to make Harry a true success -- or die/kill trying.

(By the way, big points to set designer Bill English for the classy/grungy combination of the box beam ceiling and weathered brick walls against which this all plays. Jacqueline Scott did kitchen set dressing, and Karen McNulty did scenic painting.)

The most immediate question at the start of "Seared" is why we should care whether yet another trendy eatery for New Yorkers lives or dies. The answer (or the initial answer, at least) is Dykstra. So powerful is his charisma that he could probably stand onstage reading the tax code and we'd still wrestle with curiosity about how it ends.

While peppy marketers like Emily frame great chefs like reality TV stars, most real cooks you'll meet better resemble bikers who just happened to discover less antisocial uses for knives. Dykstra's got the wide eyes, the smart-assed common sense, the battering ram personality, and the pride. (All he's missing is the tattoo sleeves.)

Much of "Seared" is characters arguing over each other. It sounds like sincere, full-throated confrontation, rather than stagy bickering. In fact, there are probably a few scenes too many of shouting kitcheneers, and maybe director Margaret Perry should have interjected a slightly different tone into a couple. But the atmosphere is genuine enough that it might trip PTSD for those who have had high-pressure dining jobs.

Rebeck probably means for "Seared" to be a story about Harry as a tragic genius, undone partly by his vanity and partly by way of the world. This doesn't quite come off, though, as the verbal odes to the power of his food feel like tacked-on apologies for his personality.

Instead, the play becomes a study on the weird little ways our brains work. Why is a particular thing sacred to one person but inconsequential to another? Why do the most bitter grudges grow between those who need each other the most? How can two (or three) people argue contrary positions but still all be right?

Somewhere in the extremely tense push and pull of "Seared," which might set some indoor record for the volume of enjoyably uncomfortable laughter, there's an essay about human nature that almost anyone can relate to, and some man in the mirror moments almost anyone can recognize.

Poor Gnapp seems the more tragic figure in the end, a blue-collar schmuck at heart who know he's this close to having or losing it all. And while Sunderhaus' slightly alien presence is never as relatable (which is too bad), the pressures she embodies are just as recognizable as everyone else's human foibles.

"Seared" plays through Nov. 12 at SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street. For tickets and information, call 415-677-9596 or visit SFPlayhouse.com