The saying “The only way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” seems to have been tailor-made for American cooking icon James Beard. In Round House Bethesda’s newly opened production of I Love to Eat, Nick Olcott brings Beard to the stage with warmth and verve, reconciling the culinary pioneer’s garrulous public persona with his conflicted private life by way of his lifelong love affair with food.
The show opens on Beard’s well appointed kitchen, a homey space filled by scenic designer Misha Kachman with steel cookware, fresh ingredients, and hallmarks of Beard’s global travels. The pajama clad-gourmand makes a dramatic entrance, framed by evocative lighting, triumphant operatic score, and falling confetti.
The moment provides witty foreshadowing of Beard’s subsequent lament that his dreams of fame never quite translated into the superstardom achieved by later stars like Julia Child. Beard proceeds to invite the audience into his sacred cooking space for a few midnight lessons on cooking and life.
In a series of entertaining vignettes, he charts his culinary career including imagined TV segments, phone calls, and daydreams, all underpinned by a sense of regret and foreboding. Olcott brings an approachable quality to his role as the culinary legend. His disarming mannerisms, including his infectious refrain of “Goody Goody” before answering the telephone as well as his visible disdain for pretentious cooking and the phrase “gourmet”, effectively set the audience at ease. In the tradition of the best TV chefs, he makes the audience feel as if they are old friends swapping stories over good food.
Playwright James Still’s breezy script provides an interesting history lesson on the evolution of the TV cooking industry and TV as a whole. Beard speaks glowingly about “I Love to Eat,” the NBC television show that paved the way for his national career. The show, which ran on Friday nights on NBC from 1946 to 1947, was sponsored by Borden Inc, a national food conglomerate. Accompanied by intrusive Borden mascot Elsie the Cow, Beard reached roughly 1000 TV sets in the New York area, a far cry from the millions of viewers that tune into Paula Deen or Rachel Ray today.
The show is light on real drama for most of the night. However, the production offers some poignancy during Beard’s visions of his time in Europe as a young opera student. He speaks lovingly of chill early mornings spent perusing farmers’ markets bursting with fresh produce – a dreamland of artisans and artists, to which Beard seems inexorably drawn. That one of the patron saints of American Cuisine should pine so deeply for French and Belgian cooking is but one of Beard’s absorbing contradictions.
I Love to Eat
Closes November 4, 2012
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD 20814
1 hour, 15 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $26 – $63
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Europe also offers a window into Beard’s carefully concealed homosexuality, which might have ruined his career in those more intolerant days. Upon receiving a phone call from an old flame in Barcelona, Olcott’s warm smile becomes pained, and soulful eyes reveal a painful longing to give in to his repressed desires. Instead, he hangs up and takes his frustrations out on his ingredients. In this way, his relationship with food comes full circle from outlet of joy to refuge from sadness.
Director Leon Major and his creative team have crafted a brisk, witty journey through the little known life of an American culinary pioneer. The show speeds through its brief 1 hour, 15 minute runtime on a current of lively banter and delicious recipes. The perfunctory ending slightly undermines the satisfying emotional climax, but then perhaps it backs up Beard’s own realization that the end is never as we expect it to be.
At its core, I Love to Eat seems uncomfortable really plumbing the depths of Beard’s emotional life, choosing only to skim the surface. Like Beard’s own cooking philosophy, the show errs toward “always fun”, which still makes for a wholly enjoyable evening.
I Love to Eat. By James Still. Directed by Leon Major. Starring Nick Olcott. Scenic design: Misha Kachman, Costume design:Frank Labovitz,Lighting design: Kristin Thompson, Sound design: Matthew M. Nielson, Props master Andrea Moore. Stage manager, Che Wernsman. Produced by Round House Theatre. Reviewed by Ben Demers.