Wherever Raúl Esparza goes, it seems, people expect him to sing “Being Alive,” the heart-rending Stephen Sondheim ballad from “Company,” for which he earned a lead actor Tony Award nomination in 2006.
“If I don’t sing that song, people get upset,” he said, sipping a coffee in Midtown. “I’m like, I don’t want to [expletive] sing that song. And I love that song.”
Mr. Esparza’s latest character, the chef of a limping 16-seat restaurant in Brooklyn, also chafes at being pigeonholed. His signature is a scallop dish, which he abruptly takes off the menu after a glowing review. Has he done this on principle? Or spite?
The anxiety of an artist pursuing excellence is at the heart of Theresa Rebeck’s play “Seared,” which is now in previews and opens Oct. 28 at MCC Theater. Make sure to eat beforehand: Over the course of two acts, the smells of Mr. Esparza’s onstage cooking will waft into the audience.
To prepare, he worked with a chef consultant, watched cooking shows and practiced making the dishes at home as if he were in a restaurant kitchen. Onstage, he’ll be sautéing broccoli rabe, plating gnocchi, searing salmon and more.
“I’ve never tried to cook so quickly,” Mr. Esparza said. “I’m slicing open my fingers.” He held up a Band-Aid as evidence.
Early last month, he visited Gloria Restaurant, a Midtown seafood spot, to watch a dinner rush firsthand. “The audience will never see it, but all of those details will help me think like the character,” explained Mr. Esparza, who has been nominated in all four possible Tony categories for any actor (in plays and musicals both) though he has never won. (He recently wrapped a six-season run on “Law and Order” as well.)
Mr. Esparza peppered the executive chef, Andy Keith, with questions. Why do you put your towel there? How do you keep track of orders? Why do you fold the tickets? He leaned against the wine cooler, keeping his hands back from the hubbub of the working kitchen, and drew a diagram in a notebook he’d been keeping throughout his preparation.
“Seared,” which had its premiere at San Francisco Playhouse and was staged at the Williamstown Theater Festival last summer, with a different lead actor, comes to New York when cooking and eating onstage have been increasingly popular.
The current Tony-winning “Oklahoma!” revival practically begins with the crack of an egg, for making cornbread, and chili is served at intermission. In 2015, Carey Mulligan sautéed onions in “Skylight” on Broadway. The year before, Hugh Jackman gutted a fish in “The River.” Opening next month is “Now Serving: A Guide to Aesthetic Etiquette in Four Courses,” a performance dinner party where audience members will eat onstage with actors in an experimental bacchanal.
In “Seared,” Mr. Esparza alone cooks six or seven meals, all of which are at least partially edible. (He’s not the only one, but you’ll have to see the show to find out why.) Working with knives that can cut red onions like paper and oil that actually sizzles, he must be precise and careful, while also looking like a professional. The 120-ish-person audience can smell garlic sizzling in the pans.
“They’re cooking absolutely everything,” Ms. Rebeck said. “I was like: ‘You know it’s a play, and we don’t actually have to do that?’”
To block the action, she and the director, Moritz van Stuelpnagel brought in Benjamin Liquet, a private chef, who began consulting in Williamstown.
“I keep reminding them that no one is eating the food,” Mr. Liquet said by phone later. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to look perfect.”
Mr. Liquet taught the actors tricks for being safe, convincing and efficient. He invited Mr. Esparza to his home for sessions, showing the right way to hold a knife, the right way to season a dish.
But it took the input of Mr. von Stuelpnagel to make sure the play is both culinarily accurate and theatrically adept.
Amid the industrial kitchen set, one complete with a working stove, he and the rest of the cast rehearsed. How do they plate a short rib dish so that it’s visible, but stable enough to be carried as a prop? Where should the towels go? What’s the right way to make a “burn” look realistic?
“In a musical, at least, the dance steps are set to music,” Mr. von Stuelpnagel whispered. “This is like, ‘On six counts of eight, make a wilted spinach salad.’”
Mr. Esparza, Mr. van Stuelpnagel and Ms. Rebeck all described “Seared” as a meditation on art vs. capitalism — how business pressures can affect a small, creative dream. But the play is also about the persistence of “the artist”: abrasive, relentless, unblinking.
Take Mr. Esparza’s Harry. He’s … particular. He won’t make the scallops. He refuses to settle for just salmon: In one scene, he wants wild salmon, which is almost impossible to buy. It has to be his way, or no way at all.
“Is he an artist? Yes,” Mr. Esparza said. “He tries to express what is not visible, or what is not taste-able yet. That, to me, is a kind of definition of genius: the people who aim at things that no one else can see.”
Mr. Esparza sees parts of himself in Harry. Whether it’s delivering scallops or “Being Alive,” there’s pressure to live up to both a past performance and the expectations of a persona: Can I do this again? Am I really who they believe me to be?
“A song that is so deeply associated with you becomes an impossible thing to live up to,” Mr. Esparza said. “That’s just like the scallops. They are both the thing he does really well, and the thing he is afraid he cannot do very well.”
Still, Harry’s personality generates considerable (and justified) irritation among the three other characters in “Seared”: an ambitious consultant (Krysta Rodriguez); a devoted waiter (W. Tré Davis); and his grumbly business partner (David Mason). They flatter and cajole, seduce and tease, berate and buffalo him as they try to feed customers and — ultimately — save the restaurant.
“That’s something he feels he’s earned,” Ms. Rebeck said. At rehearsal, she watched from behind sunglasses, bare feet crossed in front of her. A prolific (if arguably overlooked) playwright and scriptwriter, she said she’d drawn from her own life to write Harry, remembering spats with television producers, whom she described as “vampires.”
“I’m not a typewriter the way he is not a line chef at McDonald’s,” she said. “You can’t separate the creative person from the person.”
Reconciling Harry’s personality with his own has been a large part of Mr. Esparza’s preparation. He learned to cook from his Cuban grandmother, who’d teach him recipes by using her cupped palm to measure ingredients. For him, food is about love, friendship and unity: the shared experience of a meal.
To connect to his prickly character, Mr. Esparza turned regularly to his notebook. On one page, he wrote “taste, taste, taste, taste, taste,” all the way to the bottom. On others, statements and questions: What’s good about him? Food is sex. Food is memory. What does he love? Why does he cook?
“Being an actor is trying to hypnotize yourself,” Mr. Esparza said. “You try to think like another person for a couple of hours, and then you don’t.”
In the lead-up to opening night, that’s what he was thinking: Did he really understand Harry, and could he communicate him to the audience? Could he inhabit Harry’s mind, his skills, his restaurant as if they were truly his?
That, of course, and trying to hang on to all 10 of his fingers through the run.
Amelia Nierenberg is a reporter on the Food desk. @AJNierenberg
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