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‘Seared’ Theater Review: Raúl Esparza Sizzles in Theresa Rebeck’s New Top-Chef Comedy

Rebeck cooks up a storm in her raucously funny new play about genius in the kitchen

The adjective most attached to Theresa Rebeck’s name is “prolific.” It’s true, but more important is that this writer of plays (“Hamlet/Bernhardt”), novels (“I’m Glad About You”) and television (“Smash”) does not repeat herself.

Rebeck’s new comedy “Seared,” which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s MCC Theatre, is all about a top chef who drives everyone around him nuts with his genius for preparing exquisite cuisine regardless of the monetary and emotional costs. Real chefs might disagree, but from the sound of seared wild salmon and boiling gnocchi on stage, Rebeck knows her way around a five-star kitchen right down to the most absurdly expensive Japanese knives.

It is best to see “Seared” on a very full stomach. Playing that very talented, difficult chef Harry, Raúl Esparza cooks up more than a few dishes on Tim Mackabee’s hyper-realistic set of a fully working kitchen at a boutique restaurant in the boroughs.

The restaurant hasn’t been open very long, but already a review in New York magazine has raved about Harry’s scallops, a dish that he never prepares again because…because…he’s Harry: inspired, persnickety, antisocial, unhinged, perhaps crazy. Harry represents Genius with a capital letter and Rebeck immediately pits him against Money, who is personified here by Mike (David Mason), the man who runs the front-end of the restaurant and invested everything he’s got into the business, which is far from a sure deal.

Enter the Consultant, also known as Emily (Krysta Rodriguez), who is there to make things work, according to Mike, or to destroy them, according to Harry.

Perhaps it took a female playwright to give us a really good female antihero like Emily in the current theater world where even strong women are turned into victims (Harvey Fierstein’s “Bella Bella”) and white straight men must always be creeps (Tracy Letts’ “Linda Vista”). Rebeck puts us in the uncomfortable position of often rooting for the bad guy Emily, because she’s savvy and knows how to get what she wants. Power is seductive and Rodriguez seduces like a sledgehammer seduces. Unlike Harry and Mike, who take extreme umbrage at every perceived slight to their ego and space, Rodriguez’s Emily fields insults to her sex, morality and intelligence like they’re mere drops of Chanel No. 5 rolling off her backside. George Bernard Shaw knew how to get us to take the side of a munitions maker, in “Major Barbara.” In “Seared,” Andrew Undershaft just happens to be named Emily and works as a restaurant consultant.

Human triangles are created to leave somebody out. We see that dramatic formula at work right from the get-go, which is part of the fun. The other fun part is how Esparza and Mason match, if not exceed, Rodriguez’s flamboyance in defending their respective characters’ fiefdoms. Moritz von Stuelpnagel directs, and if there has been a more fired-up ensemble on the New York stage this year, I haven’t seen it. Rebeck wrote three big roles, and this trio puffs them up into something even bigger.

Into this triangular formula Rebeck drops a fourth element, a waiter named Rodney who turns out to be the water to Harry’s fire. Rebeck sprinkles Rodney around the edges of the kitchen, and W. Tre Davis is indeed very nice eye candy. He sort of disappears before and after the intermission of this two-hour play, only for Rebeck to hand this waiter “Seared” on a silver platter near the end. To say that Davis runs away with the entrée, as well as the dessert, is an understatement.

Robert Hofler, TheWrap's lead theater critic, has worked as an editor at Life, Us Weekly and Variety. His books include "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson," "Party Animals," and "Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos." His latest book, "Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne," is now in paperback.