There’s always a danger in presenting a solo piece. An actor can’t rely on scene partners to help carry the show and has to make the audience care about him and be engaged in his performance in a mere matter of seconds – even if the script he’s given to work with is a muddled mess. Nick Olcott, making his triumphant return to acting after a twelve year hiatus, rises above the unfocused and banal mess that is James Still’s solo piece, I Love to Eat. Portraying the larger-than-life James Beard, the first American chef to have a television cooking show, Olcott proves a stunning acting performance can make one overlook a script’s many deficiencies. Collectively, his acting and some fine production values make this Round House Theatre presentation tolerable and, at times, even entertaining.
So let me first focus on what’s not to like and get that out of the way. Beard, as depicted in this play, is a friendly, lovable, and charismatic individual with a sunny disposition, many interests (ranging from acting, opera, to food) who happened to stumble into the cooking hall of fame despite never having taken a cooking class in his life. A natural talent, he brought his recipes and ideas to the masses through television and print cookbooks. Although his television show (which aired when televised entertainment was very much a new thing) was less than successful, he paved the way for other chef-entertainers who would come after him. Though told from the angle of Beard on his death bed in the mid-1980s, Still’s play is not a career retrospective – at least not in its entirety. Beard tells the audience a little about his cooking show, a little bit about his artistic interests, a little about his favorite recipes/food, a little bit about his personal life, and a little bit about his views on humanity and mortality. He also talks to some famous and non-famous people on the phone. Put succinctly, the play is pretty much schizophrenic. By trying to do ‘so much,’ Still ends up doing very little. True, the cute, little one-liner cooking jokes will get a giggle from those with an affinity for such things in an audience, and lovers of Beard may revel in seeing ‘him’ entertain again, but that’s about it.
Despite all of this, Olcott certainly delivers an incredible acting performance as the approachable chef under the solid direction of Leon Major. His infectious enthusiasm and love for Mr. Beard is abundantly evident and he shows he is equally capable in delivering somber confessions about mortality as he is in delivering comedic lines – however cringe-worthy. Olcott makes the most of his monologues he is given and, from the moment he steps out of the refrigerator (yes, really) in his pajamas (designed by Frank Labovitz) at the beginning of the play to the end, he has the audience in the palm of his hand. His natural yet powerful acting presence is something to see.
Misha Kachman’s beautiful, detailed, realistic, and expansive kitchen is integral to giving Olcott a platform to embody Beard and do what Beard loved to do – entertain. Though stunning, it never detracts from Olcott’s performance, but rather complements it. Matthew M. Nielson’s sound designs and compositions are interesting and, at times complex, and serve to highlight Beard’s environment as well as his jovial nature. A ‘song’ in which kitchen utensils are used as music instruments is particularly noteworthy. Kristin A. Thompson’s lighting design leverages industrial-like kitchen lighting for much of the show, but she also incorporates some showy lighting designs at the beginning, which nicely clue the audience in to the fact that Beard sees the play as a performance (though one happening in his head).
In sum, I’m glad that this production has made good use of Olcott’s considerable acting talents. I just wish he was given a better script to deliver.