Theresa Rebeck serves life on a platter in her new play, 'Seared,' at Williamstown Theater Festival

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Editor's note: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of W. Tre Davis' name.

WILLIAMSTOWN — We smell Theresa Rebeck's smartly written and served "Seared," literally, before we see it at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage. In the moments before the houselights dim and the stage lights come full up on a fully operational kitchen (brilliantly designed by Tom Mackabee), a faint aroma of garlic frying in a pan drifts off the stage and into the auditorium. It's as enticing, it turns out, as the play that follows.

In the dark, we hear chopping. The lights come up on Harry (Hoon Lee), a goateed, shaven-head man on a mission. His no-nonsense knife strokes are clean, rapid, masterly. (Lee was trained by a professional chef while preparing for this role and he has learned his lessons extremely well). This is Harry's life, his uncompromising passion and he has poured it all into a 16-seat restaurant in Brooklyn which he co-owns with his friend, Mike (Michael Esper). Harry is the food-and-menu man; Mike is the money man. After 2 years, their restaurant has been "discovered" through a New York magazine Best Bet which singles out Harry's signature scallops.

Suddenly Harry, who improvises his menu each day and writes it on a blackboard, has an in-demand dish; an obligation, and so, contrarian that he can be, purist and perfectionist that he is, Harry drops the scallops from the menu, much to his partner's anger; thus setting up another in what clearly has been a continuing series of heated confrontations between the two.

Without telling Harry in advance, Mike brings in a business consultant named Emily (a pitch-perfect Krysta Rodriguez). who is very smart, very good and very persuasive at what she does. Also part of the mix is Rodney (W. Tre Davis, a wonderfully realized, lusciously subtle portrayal), the restaurant's waiter, who rises to an occasion when it presents itself.

On its surface, "Seared" is an art-vs-commerce play but nothing is as simple or familiar as that. The arguments do not line up that simly. Rebeck has created, and director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel and his thoroughly appealing and accomplished actors have delivered, a quartet of characters who each are true to themselves; to their respective clearly defined aims and ambitions; wants and needs.

Rebeck's writing here is savvy, penetrating, incisively funny. She and Stuelpnagel are smart enough not to travel well-worn paths even when it appears that's precisely what they are about to do.

The playing throughout is vigorous, unrelenting, truthful. Lee's Harry may be a man to be reckoned with but Rebeck gives him the opportunity to go with the flow, until he can't any longer. The consequences are compelling.

Esper's frustration, like Harry's resistance to change is perfectly understandable. Esper makes Mike's urgency and drive palpable. Rodriguez' Emily is a sure, firm, determined presence; a politician who does the best she can not to yield to Harry's temperament even as she maneuvers to make sure she is aligned where it will do the business, and, by extension, her, the most good. Rebeck never makes clear what Emily has to gain from her work here but it is clear that Mike is not her first success nor is he likely to be her last. And Tre is spot on as Rodney, who learns, almost by instinct, that status quo need not remain status quo.

This rich, subtly seasoned serving of theater flies through its nearly two hours with breathless energy and drive. Funny and sad, hopeful and despairing — life on a platter.

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at 413-496-6212 or jborak@herkshireeagle.com


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