Before Food Network and Cooking Channel there was James Beard, the first TV chef. Starting in 1946 with a show called I Love to Eat sponsored by Borden Foods, James Beard showed us that cooking could be fun. Beard never took a cooking lesson in his life but, with a big personality and his love of food, Beard is considered one of the greats in his field. With an award that bears his name, James Beard is synonymous with cooking.
Enter DC theater legend Nick Olcott, who is returning to the stage as an actor, after taking a 12 year hiatus to exclusively direct. I had heard so much about this man; so I had a high expectation going into his solo piece about Beard called, appropriately enough, I Love to Eat playing at Round House Theatre. I am happy to report that Olcott exceeded my expectations and I totally get why he is so respected. From his first entrance out of Beard’s freezer, Olcott commands the stage and embodies Beard’s larger than life personality. Director Leon Major has done a good job collaborating with Olcott to get Beard’s mannerisms and not making him a cartoon which the characterization easily could have been.
All I can say is “GOODY GOODY GOODY!!” Nick Olcott is back onstage
James Still’s script does not necessarily work all the time, but Olcott is so good the script looks better than it actually is. When Still concentrates on Beard’s career the play is engaging and that is more of what I wanted to see. We do find out that Beard was hiding the fact that he was a homosexual because in the 1940s you did not come out on television. Also pointed out is the fact that Beard kept a listed phone number so anyone could call him to get cooking tips. This shows Beard’s generosity as a person and that he never thought of himself as a celebrity. I did enjoy the cooking segment in the middle of the show and if you are lucky to have table seating down front you might get a glass of wine and a snack. Also Elsie the Cow from Borden Foods makes an appearance. You also see Beard’s resourcefulness. If say you don’t own a hot plate, you can cook on an iron. In other words, use what you have and make it work for you. It’s very hard to write solo shows and sometimes the playwright feels that he or she needs to cram in more info than needed. This is the only problem with I Love to Eat. It feels like ten pounds of bologna in a five pound bag.
Having said that, I do recommend you see this show. Not only for Olcott’s portrayal but the physical elements are great too. The set designed by Misha Kachman depicts Beard’s home kitchen in the village complete with a U-shaped cooking table and an all electric kitchen. Beard hated using gas. Composer/Sound Designer Matthew Nielson starts off the evening with a piece called Kitchen Prelude. Why is this noteworthy you ask, because Nielson composed the piece to be played entirely on kitchen utensils. Now that is what I call getting the piece you are designing for.
I have to mention Assistant Stage Manager Tarythe Albrecht, who makes two brief appearances onstage as Beard’s assistant. I am hoping next time Round House Theatre gives her some lines to say because she made the most of her 30 seconds of fame in this show.
I Love to Eat is a portrait of a giant of the cooking industry James Beard. Nick Olcott’s portrayal of James Beard is like watching a master class in acting. Put these two ingredients together and it makes for a nice evening in the theatre. If the script matched the performance it would be the perfect dish. All I can say is “GOODY GOODY GOODY!!” Nick Olcott is back onstage and we should be very thankful for that.
Advisory: With all of the food references you might feel the need to go out and have a five course dinner afterwards
Running Time: 65 minutes with no intermission.
I Love to Eat plays through November 4th, 2012 at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.