Monday, August 6, 2018

Something New, Something Old: Seared & The Petrified Forest

Michael Esper and Hoon Lee in Seared. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

The glimpse of the restaurant world proffered by Theresa Rebeck’s new play Seared (at Williamstown Theatre Festival) is just as delicious as the dishes credited to the chef, Harry (Hoon Lee). Harry is misanthropic, egotistical and neurotic. His partner in this small but impressive Brooklyn restaurant, Mike (Michael Esper), who furnished the cash for the venture and handles the finances, has to put up with his endless quibbling, his eruptions of temper, his perverseness (the moment a critic praises his scallops Harry stops cooking them), his anxiety (Mike avoids telling him they’re expecting a major food critic until the last possible minute – and then the results are disastrous), his expectations of privilege, and his endless pseudo-philosophizing. Mike does so because Harry is a culinary genius – but his partner’s conduct, in addition to the stress of keeping a restaurant afloat, is making him crazy and preventing him from sleeping at night. When he hires a consultant named Emily (Krysta Rodriguez) to, as they say, take the place to the next level – adding more tables, printing menus rather than settling for a chalkboard so that Harry can make last-minute decisions about the offerings – Harry views it as a betrayal and an outrage. But she stays, and it’s clear that her contributions are having the desired effect, even if everything she suggests strikes Harry as pandering. The fourth member of the crew is the waiter, Rodney (W. Tré Davis), who is almost always in the impossible position of trying to stay loyal to both Harry and Mike when they’re on different sides of an argument.

Seared is the second howlingly funny play I’ve seen on the Williamstown mainstage this summer. (The first was The Closet.) The dialogue is some of Rebeck’s best – the cleverness is not just in the lines themselves but in the structure of the dialogue, the way the quarrels build, the parry and thrust. What makes the comic situation irresistible are the absurdly high stakes – for all four of the characters but especially, of course, for Mike and Harry. The higher they climb, the more hilarious the play becomes – and Harry is a furious self-dramatizer who is incapable of calm or reason. The scenes between him and Mike are a series of increasingly extreme behaviors (Harry’s) that force Mike into increasingly extreme (and futile) schemes to avoid his partner’s inevitable meltdowns.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel has staged the play with finesse. I had a great time at this director’s revival of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter on Broadway last year, but there were some problems in the shaping of the text. Seared has far fewer of those; there are minor defects in rhythm in Harry’s two major fits of hysteria (one in each of the two acts), but I couldn’t tell if they were in the direction or in the performance, and anyway the scenes wouldn’t be a whole lot funnier if the tempo were perfect. The scenic designer, Tim Mackabee, has supplied von Stuelpnagel with a fine working kitchen; one of the elements of the play that makes it so entertaining is that we get to watch Harry at work in what feels, at least, like real time. In one memorable scene, a blackout sketch played in silence, Harry is alone in the kitchen, improvising a new dish.

Lee as Harry in Seared. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

All four of the actors are splendid. Lee plays Harry like a crazed samurai whose weapons, all of them potentially lethal, are the actual tools of his profession, his assurance of his own moral superiority and his gift (if we can call it that) for arguing any subject, however apparently trivial, to death. His conviction that he is always right and in every minute detail – and that almost no one is even worthy to stand in the same room with him – powers every exchange. What makes Seared so engaging is that the other three characters are the only people Harry knows (as far as we can see) whom he would even bother to argue with – and Emily has to earn that right, which she does partly by going to bed with him. Rodriguez plays Emily at first as armed with infinite patience and playing a deft game, balancing flattery and respect with a refusal to back down because she’s determined to play savior for this first-rate but financially unstable restaurant. But once she joins the team she is as much subject to Harry’s maddening impulses and inconsistencies as Mike is, and when the critic shows up and Harry goes off the edge, she’s as vulnerable as he is. That’s when Rodriguez does as an actor what Emily does for the restaurant – take things to the next level. Davis brings a seasoned cool and a stand-up comic’s presence to the smaller but crucial role of Rodney. Best of all is Michael Esper, whose energy, command of the language and sense of emotional structure are remarkable.

Seared has one problem: Rebeck couldn’t figure out how to end it. Or rather, she fell back in the trap she hit in Seminar: she wrote a marvelous comedy and then persuaded herself that it’s deeper and more complex than it is. The ending feels like an attempt to force a change in Harry that we can’t possibly believe in and to draw a moral of some kind. But she doesn’t need to make her play say something. It’s a first-rate entertainment, and she should be happy with it.

Rebecca Brooksher and David Adkins in The Petrified Forest. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

Robert E. Sherwood’s 1935 play The Petrified Forest is receiving an exceedingly rare production at Berkshire Theatre Group. It’s the granddaddy of all the plays and movies and TV episodes in which, when a group of disparate people are gathered together in a confined space, under pressure, their true personalities emerge. Here the setting is a gas station-diner in the Arizona desert run by a grousing, self-important little man (Sean Cullen) and his daughter Gabby (Rebecca Brooksher). She reads French poetry and longs to get out of the desert, which is choking her soul, and visit her long-absent mother in France. The crisis that occasions a long night’s vigil in the café is the arrival of Duke Mantee (Jeremy Davidson), a murderous criminal on the lam with three of his gang (Devin White, Joey Collins and Tré Alexander Dukes). The others forced to remain until Duke moves on are Gabby’s loquacious grandfather (John Thomas Waite); the gas station attendant Boze Hertzlinger (Shawn Fagan), who dreams of making love to Gabby and longs for the pro-football career he missed out on; the Mexican cook (Lauren Baez); and three strangers who happen to be passing through. Two, the Chisholms (Walter Hudson and Jennifer Van Dyck), are a rich, unhappy couple. The third is the play’s protagonist, Alan Squier (David Adkins), a one-time writer, out of funds, who begs a meal from Gabby and with whom she quickly falls in love. She doesn’t realize that he’s reached the end of his road – that he’s failed to find any meaning in his life and that he’s drawing closer to his own death.

The Petrified Forest starred Leslie Howard as Squier and Humphrey Bogart as Mantee both on Broadway and in the 1936 movie version, which made Bogart a star. He’d been hanging around Hollywood since 1930 but mostly miscast in earnest, forgettable supporting roles; when Howard was asked to recreate his stage performance Howard insisted that Bogart be cast as well, and suddenly Hollywood was shown what kinds of roles he might be better suited for than heirs and district attorneys. Nonetheless I don’t think he’s very good in the movie; the best thing about it is Bette Davis as Gabby. It’s faithful to Sherwood’s play, but it’s stiff and dully directed (by Archie Mayo). (It’s amusing for Bogey fans to compare it to John Huston’s 1948 Key Largo, which has a similar set-up but in which he’s the hero who finds his courage, while Edward G. Robinson is the intruding gangster.)

The play is a combination of Depression-era elements: romantic-poetic fatalism, watered-down existentialism, and socialism. There isn’t much of the last, but in the opening scene a couple of telephone linemen, played by Dukes and Joel Austin, voice their complaints about the capitalist system, and Mr. Chisholm, who lacks substance, is a familiar pre-World War II version of a wealthy businessman. It’s hokum, but of a sort that’s been out of American drama for so long that it’s fascinating to see a theatre company attempt to refurbish it. David Auburn and his actors do a creditable job. Auburn uses the compact set by Wilson Chin imaginatively; the shootout at the climax, when the cops arrive, is particularly well staged. And though some of the actors are more effective than others, there are no bad performances. Adkins handles the pseudo-poetic excesses of Alan’s language skillfully by underplaying them as much as he can and stressing the character’s self-deprecating humor. Davidson, a good actor I used to enjoy watching on the short-lived TV show Pan Am, underplays as well. He gives an intelligent performance that has its own ironic notes, but you never get a sense of how dangerous this man is. One of the things that makes the play a curiosity is the (sort-of) existential twist it gives to Mantee’s character: in a world that’s grown paralyzed, he’s committed to the extreme actions he takes. Chisholm, the callow halfback Boze and the café owner Jason Maple are set up in contrast to him: they’re clumsy or cautious or they go off half-cocked. Gramp Maple is thrilled by him. Alan admires him and seems to be inspired in some way by his example to do something nutty and flamboyant to prove his love for Gabby. Mrs. Chisholm sees him as a real man, unlike her husband, and offers to sleep with him. Still, I think it’s a mistake to leave out the personality elements that make him a killer.

Waite gets around most of the clichés in the part of Gramp, and Fagan, Cullen, Hudson and Waite all give solid character performances. Brooksher makes an appealing Gabby, but she reads as too contemporary, especially in her interactions with both the men circling around her, Alan and Boze. Her casually sardonic quality with them undercuts Sherwood’s presentation of the character as adventurous and romantic. It’s evident that Auburn opted to lighten up the text to make it more acceptable to a twenty-first-century audience, but you have to believe in these people’s behavior or the climax doesn’t make sense. A more egregious example is the fact that Auburn and the actress Jennifer Van Dyck play Mrs. Chisholm’s throwing herself at Duke as ridiculous. This section of the production panders deplorably to the audience, but the worse problem is that if you’re encouraged not to take this woman seriously, then you miss Sherwood’s purpose in putting her in the play to begin with. The Petrified Forest is no masterwork, but it’s the play BTG chose to mount, and as an aficionado of American drama I’m delighted they did – and that they did so with such a high degree of professionalism. It only slips when Auburn tries to make apologies for the text.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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