Was that James Beard I Saw at the Roundhouse Last Night?

The reviews of “I Love to Eat” have been pretty good. It’s a one act, 70 minute, one man show. James Beard, famed food writer, is played by Nick Olcott, who has spent the last ten years or so directing, and not acting. The run of the play, written by a well known American playwright James Still, ends tomorrow, so we saw the next to last performance.

I am not sure what the rest of the audience thought, but I think “I Love to Eat” has an extremely weak script, and that Nick Olcott, who looked the part, did not act the part well enough to make me to imagine I was watching James Beard and not Nick Olcott. Perhaps he is simply tired of doing this play; perhaps you cannot do more with this weak script. I am not sure.

The set is Beard’s personal kitchen, Beard is elderly (presumably near the end of his life – he died at 81), and he can’t sleep (he is in red pajamas, which looked pretty comfortable). Beard lives alone, but loves attention; he is sorry about much of his life, he is defensive about many parts of it, and he is proud of what he has been able to accomplish. He especially loves people to call him and to ask his advice, and he is called by Julia Child from France, several times from a Mrs. Martin who is having a tough time cooking for a dinner party in Kansas, and an unnamed friend in Barcelona. He remembers parts of his life – from his normal but not happy childhood in Oregon, to his time in London where he studied to become an opera singer, to his 1946 television show sponsored by Borden dairy products. The references to the TV show return several times, with a Groucho Marx-like duck turned into Elsie the Cow dropping from the ceiling with notes for Beard and then actually joining him as a hand puppet with Olcott playing both roles (except he is not a ventriloquist, so his mouth and Elsie’s simply move in sync and his voices becomes a little high pitched, when Elsie is asking him embarrassing questions that he sidesteps); oh yes, later in the show, Elmer (Elsie the Cow’s cow husband) calls Beard, presumably with a new idea for the show, but hangs up after being told that the show was cancelled years ago.

While “I Love to Eat” is not exactly a cooking show, you do get an example of Beard’s “plain American cooking”, a recipe that was developed when he and a friend ran a catering company in New York during the 1930s, and which Olcott/Beard prepares on stage. And what is it? White bread, scooped into small circles, homemade mayonnaise, raw onion slices, and chopped parsley. Yum. And served with red wine?

I had hope for this play, and when Olcott came out on stage, I smiled for the first ten minutes or so, but the banality of the script got to me. Nothing was very profound, and you didn’t learn any more about Beard than you would learn if you read the Wikipedia bio (I tested this out after the show). I stayed with the play, my mind did not wander, but I thought that even 70 minutes was too long for this particular production.

This was actually my first time at Roundhouse Bethesda – I think they could have done better. (I liked the theater, very comfortable, good sight lines)

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