The San Francisco Playhouse, the best regional theatre company in the area, is moving up in the world. After a few years of increasingly impressive productions, finally the company is producing a major world premiere. While I am thrilled that the Playhouse has been given such an opportunity, I’m less thrilled that the play is “Seared”, the new play by Theresa Rebeck. There’s no doubt it’s the best smelling play I’ve ever seen (the show features actual onstage cooking that may have hungry audiences swooning in their seats), but its dramatic integrity is severely lacking.
Rebeck is as close to a commercial playwright alive today. A frequent writer for network police procedural dramas as well as the creator of the 2012 NBC series Smash, she also has about five thousand plays in her oeuvre, including three that have ended up on Broadway. Unfortunately, her plays are exactly the kind that you would imagine writer of such prolificacy to write: snarky, formless, glib, moderately entertaining, and thoroughly uninteresting. Seared proves to be no different. The setting is a struggling Brooklyn restaurant that has newly become trendy thanks to an article in New York Magazine. The action takes place when Mike, the restaurant’s owner, seeks outside help to profit from this new publicity and avoid going out of business. These new “improvements” don’t sit well with Harry, the restaurant’s temperamental chef.
What transpires from this point is a highly typical art vs. commerce drama punctuated with slick but uncreative punchlines that runs right into every cliché that plays like this should try and avoid. That’s not inherently problematic in itself (Kenneth Lonergan has become one of our greatest living authors by dissecting the truth that comes from dramatic clichés), but Rebeck has failed to make her stock characters interesting enough for the audience to care about them inherently. Every one of the four characters in Seared are drawn in broad strokes, and after about five minutes in their company, you can (accurately) guess exactly what they will do for the entire performance.
It’s especially irritating that Rebeck clearly has never worked in a kitchen, as the insider lingo sounds as tin-eared as that on Smash and she never clearly establishes why cooking even matters to anybody onstage. That being said, it’s not actually particularly bad in motion, managing to retain that flat entertainment value that comes from dull network dramas, but what clearly should have been an intermission-free 90 minutes is presented as a two hour and fifteen minute evening, including intermission. At a certain point, you become tired of your attention being demanded for such mediocrity for so long.
To Rebeck’s credit, the play ends surprisingly strongly, reaching a unique and effective conclusion to its own central argument, and the San Francisco Playhouse has once again presented a superlative version of the material given to them. I wish director Margaret Perry hadn’t encouraged her actors to shout so much, but the cast works together as a unit very effectively, with Alex Sunderhaus giving a standout performance as Emily, the consultant recruited to put the restaurant back in the black. Bill English’s set design is a work of magnificent naturalism, though you should be careful before buying tickets too far off to the side.
I hope that this production is a sign of great things to come for the Playhouse. If I wrote a play, there’s nowhere else I’d rather it premiere. But let’s all hope that the new work they commission will be stronger than this one. The good news is that the next production of the Playhouse is She Loves Me, a strong contender for the greatest musical of the 1960s. I’ll be there, and so should you.
Seared plays at the San Francisco Playhouse through November 12th. Tickets and information available here.