Like a cadaver rising from a coffin on a spooky/funny late-night TV show, actor Garry Geiken emerges from a huge refrigerator and — ta-da! — becomes James Beard. For the next 80 minutes, Geiken's baldheaded, rotund and jolly character nibbles on the life of Beard, a celebrant of American cookery. He dishes a little gossip, chops some herbs — even serves raw onion sandwiches to a lucky couple of theatergoers.
"I Love to Eat" is playwright James Still's paean to Beard. Geiken is bringing the one-man show to life at Illusion Theater under Michael Robins' direction.
Geiken roams across a pitch-perfect midcentury modern kitchen designed by Dean Holtzman, slouching at times in an easy chair, visiting a dining table post-dinner, and re-creating moments from the 1940s cooking show from which this play takes its title. Beard mixed well his predilections. He loved theater and opera. He loved to cook, write, laugh and entertain. What he made out of these seemingly disparate elements was a prototype of the chef celebrity. Beard is a huge figure in the food world — and not just for his girth.
What Geiken succeeds at is showing how Beard's recipe for himself was authentic and homemade, in contrast to the slick industry that today dominates Bravo and the Food Network. Geiken conveys the man's appreciation for simple food, prepared well. His joy at telling someone how wonderfully champagne pairs with ham is a tiny moment we can almost taste. To find American cuisine, he preached the importance of regional tastes.
But, ultimately, the script for "I Love to Eat" is undercooked — as Beard notes, better that than overcooked — and offers a slim glimpse at this plump gourmand.
Playwright Still leans too heavily on some hackneyed dramatic devices, such as an abundance of phone calls. Designed to highlight character and information, these calls become tiresome. A bit with an Elsie the Cow hand puppet (Borden's sponsored the TV show) does not land with the intended humor. A short dance across the kitchen sticks out as an artificial performance piece. In a word, Still's construction seems disjointed. That can be defended, given the expanse of Beard's complex life, but this play perhaps gives us too much of the gadfly at the expense of a deeper look into the man's love of food and how he achieved such greatness in the culinary world.
Bringing Beard out of the deep freeze is a fine idea. But let's see him cook more.