When larger-than-life characters take up residence in the imagination of a writer, you don’t ignore them or hope they go away, says the playwright Theresa Rebeck. Indeed, as she listened to the character of Harry — a moody, tempestuous, and talented chef with an inflated sense of his powers — the hothead became the fulcrum of her high-spirited comedy-drama, “Seared.” Set in the small kitchen of a neighborhood eatery in Brooklyn that’s starting to make waves on the foodie scene, the play receives its Boston-area premiere from Gloucester Stage Company, performed outdoors at the Windhover Center for the Performing Arts in Rockport.
“Harry is a raconteur and he’s a passionate perfectionist and is really good with language,” Rebeck says over the phone from her home in Brooklyn. “That’s really a blessing when you find someone like that in your head, when they leap out like that. You go, ‘Oh, this is a person who we’re all going to have a lot of fun watching and listening to.’ ”
“And a person that big is going to eventually fall,” she adds. “It’s about a guy who creates his own kingdom and almost brings everything down around him because of the power of toxic masculinity and how it doesn’t actually work anymore.”
The people in Harry’s orbit include Mike, Harry’s pragmatic business partner; Emily, a shrewd restaurant consultant and marketing whiz who plans to capitalize on recent good publicity and give the restaurant a makeover; and Rodney, the amiable but harried waiter who sympathizes with Harry’s vision but recognizes that the masses want what the masses want.
After the restaurant makes a splash thanks to an article in New York magazine extolling the virtues of Harry’s delectable scallop dish, Mike finally sees a way for the eatery to turn a profit after two years of financial struggles. “Mike is the voice of reason,” Rebeck says. “He’s a problem-solver and is not deluded. He’s the one who cannot lie about reality and has the passion of logic, and that’s why I identify with him.”
Yet as the restaurant is besieged by newcomers wanting to try the buzzed-about dish, Harry refuses to make it because, he insists, the high-quality scallops that he must use are often unavailable. Besides, he doesn’t want to be a sellout. When Mike hires Emily without checking with Harry, the chef blows his top.
“Where is Harry being asked to make compromises that to him ruin the art?” says the play’s director, Victoria Gruenberg. “And where is he being asked to make compromises that are reasonable and that would help the business stay open?”
While Harry may epitomize the concept of toxic masculinity, he was and remains an appealing creature to Rebeck. “When I started working on it, everything he said I completely agreed with,” Rebeck says. “I connect to his passion and his drive. I feel like those are things I really admire and aspire to.”
Still, she felt torn between coming down on the side of this artistic genius and “on the side of the rest of the people in the play who are desperately trying to keep their world afloat, keeping him stabilized,” she says. “At a certain point it becomes a personal question and a serious artistic question. How do you survive as an artist? But it’s also a business question about how do you survive as a business? Because capitalism is squeezing us all.”
While that age-old question of art vs. commerce rears its head, Rebeck says the real question the play leaves audiences with is: “How do you build community with a person like Harry?”
Gruenberg, who was the assistant director for “Seared” for its 2018 premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival and during its subsequent off-Broadway run, says the play also raises uncomfortable questions that feel especially pertinent today: “How much difficult behavior in a collaborator is understandable and forgivable, and when does it cross a line? And if it crosses that line, how should we handle it?”
Several of Rebeck’s previous plays, including Broadway productions of “Seminar” (2011) and “Bernhardt/Hamlet” (2018), have explored the push-pull between artistic endeavor, ambition, and financial reality. And her experience creating the 2012-13 NBC drama “Smash,” a backstage story about the making of a fictional Broadway musical called “Bombshell,” also exemplified that tension between creativity and commerce and its intersection with ambition and gender. The series, starring Debra Messing, Anjelica Huston, Megan Hilty, and Leslie Odom Jr., debuted to big ratings but then endured its own off-camera turmoil before it ended with the firing of Rebeck after the first season. She wrote a fiery essay about her experience working as the showrunner on “Smash” for the anthology “Double Bind: Women on Ambition.”
“I was writing about the mysteries of ambition and the fact that I still have ambitions even after a horrible experience like that,” she says. “I think [those ambitions] are for me tied up in some sick idea of justice. Because I do feel like I made that show a big hit and then the guy who came in after me destroyed it, and he’s on his third show since then. And everybody acts like I’m the one who ruined it, that I’m the lunatic. So it’s not that I failed. It’s that I got publicly screwed.”
That’s no doubt a feeling that Harry can sympathize with. When a critic plans to visit the restaurant, Emily and Mike nervously hold off on telling the chef until the last minute, and when he finds out, all hell breaks loose.
He may have helped turn this little neighborhood restaurant into a sensation, but the pressure of being judged by someone else is panic-inducing. “What I’ve found in standing inside [Harry] is how fragile that powerful exterior persona can ultimately be,” Rebeck says. “But I’ve always thought that power and strength are two different things.”
Rebeck is thrilled that “Seared” is finding a new life. “It was done several times, and then the pandemic descended, so I hope it finds its legs again,” she says. And indeed, the wheels of her ambitions, even for working in television again, continue to turn.
“I’d love to do a TV show of [’Seared’],” she says, “because I think there’s a lot more you could do with these characters.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.
Play by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Victoria Gruenberg. At Windhover Center for the Performing Arts, 257R Granite St., Rockport, Aug. 6-22. Tickets $15-$54. 978-281-4433, gloucesterstage.com