Theater review: In James Beard play, foodie reflects on a full life

James Beard is having a marvelous party. It’s 1984, near the end of his life. Making an entrance in striped Chinese-silk pajamas, pouring himself the first of many Glenlivets, the portly man originally from Portland, Ore., will reminisce about his life in food: the triumphs and disappointments, the sacred and the profane, the bitter and the sweet.

This is the premise of “I Love to Eat,” playwright James Still’s one-man show about the celebrated cookbook author, TV personality, and namesake of the James Beard Foundation in New York, whose annual awards program has been called the Oscars of food. Starring the estimable Atlanta actor William S. Murphey as Beard — a man who apparently loved to perform as much as he loved to eat — the 90-minute play is getting its first Atlanta production at Theatrical Outfit.

Directed by Clifton Guterman, “I Love to Eat” is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and a grand opportunity for Murphey to peel back the many layers of this outsize onion of a man. For as imagined here by the playwright, the dean of American cookery had a private side that was lonely and self-critical. He was a gay man who “loved well but unwisely,” and he is approaching the autumn of his life with more than a pinch of sadness and regret.

The story begins in high spirits, with Murphey in delightful form as Beard, who basks in the attention, the adulation, the applause. His timing is delicious, his physicality reminiscent in its way of a strutting peacock or professional wrestler in an opulent shiny blue robe. With every line he lands, with every pregnant pause, there’s a palpable, lip-smacking note of irony and self-congratulation. Murphey is a master comedian, in delicious control of a rapt and hungry audience, ever ready for the next juicy tidbit or salty morsel.

Scenic designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay create a wonderful copy of Beard’s kitchen, with its accumulation of pots, pans, utensils, gadgets, and, off to one side, boxes of produce in which he misplaces his telephone. Phone calls are a running gag here: Beard’s number was published in the phone book, and he answered calls from far and wide, from the likes of Julia Child to a lesser-known, typical Mrs. Martin from Kansas, who is having trouble with her souffle. “A culinary crisis in Kansas,” he clucks. “I’ve never been able to say no.”

Alas, as the show moves on, the script’s inherent flaws become apparent.

Beard is a doddering old man grasping for memories to keep him company, and the play is a pastiche of random observations and anecdotes that don’t fully cohere: wisps of details from hither and yon; this wine and that dessert; his brushes with Clark Gable and Cecil B. DeMille; his philosophy of cooking and entertaining; his disdain for fussiness and pretense. “I have about as much use for (the word) ‘gourmet’ as I do a tank top!”

One minute he comments that “strawberries make an unusual omelette.” The next moment he tells us he had a pretty good voice, but not good enough to pursue his dreaming of singing opera. It’s as if the play itself is lost and unsure of what to do next.

One of the stranger attributes of “I Love to Eat” is the appearance of Elsie the Cow, the mascot of Borden, the company that sponsored Beard’s short-lived TV segments. Elsie is a sinister-looking puppet who operates as Beard’s conscience, taunting him about his personal life and his commercial endorsements. “Is there nothing you won’t do for a buck?” she needles.

Beard takes calls from a mysterious “kiddo” traveling in Europe, and at one point, he desperately tries to call the person back. For the initiated, this is most likely a reference to Beard’s longtime companion, a younger man named Gino Cofacci. Even Beard’s dog, Percy, is in absentia; we see his little monogrammed bed, and at one point, Beard fills his water bowl. But the pooch itself remains in the distance.

Toward the end of the story, Beard finds himself on the phone again with Mrs. Martin from Kansas. When she asks him the best meal he’s ever made, his mind dances back to his Oregon childhood. He was about 10 years old, and his family had built a fire on the beach. He roasted potatoes in the sand, grilled ham, made a pot of coffee. “Nothing that I have cooked since has tasted, to me, so good.”

It is a poignant moment, honest and tender, a rare glimpse of a deeply influential figure who remains ageless and elusive.

THEATER REVIEW

“I Love to Eat”

7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Additional shows: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and April 29; 2:30 p.m. May 4. Through May 5. $18-$51. Theatrical Outfit, 84 Luckie St. NW, Atlanta. 678-528-1500, theatricaloutfit.org

Bottom line: James Beard bio more a frothy souffle than a full-course meal.

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