The Round House Theatre stage is currently a spacious kitchen, where the culinary advice being served by the jolly host includes this tidbit: better undercooked than overcooked. In the solo show “I Love to Eat,” which celebrates the famed American chef James Beard, playwright James Still takes his colorful subject’s advice too much to heart.
Still’s 70-minute tribute to Beard amounts to a puckish appetizer or a semi-naughty dessert, not something that sticks to the ribs. This biographical drama is as glib as an insincere host, and insincerity is surely not the ingredient called for in a piece that adores its famous subject enough to sprinkle rose petals on the stage.
Full marks to director Leon Major for organizing the show’s big giggle of an opening, which finds Beard, mid-century America’s trailblazing celebrity chef, in his Manhattan kitchen (but entering with a delicious twist). And as Beard, Nick Olcott is every bit the epicure from the moment he picks up one of the kitchen’s several phones and delightedly purrs “Juuulia” to colleague Julia Child, his voice sounding like the kind of “great gutsy red wine” that Beard recommends.
Olcott’s job is simply to be good company during the conversational show. The actor, a busy local director who hasn’t been onstage for roughly a decade, manages it by gliding among the well-organized counters of Misha Kachman’s ample set, addressing the audience warmly and directly. Olcott is geniality itself, as Beard tells us who’s on the phone or what the best fried chicken recipes are, now and then pouring himself three fingers of Glenlivet. The theater is even set up with a few sidewalk- cafe-style tables and chairs near the stage, and, yes, a bit of food is prepared and served.
Through this happy-hour format, Still delivers his chatty fact-file on Beard, who finds occasion to reminisce about his milestones and disappointments. The signposts whiz by: studying voice in London at 20. Enduring a harsh verdict from mother. Landing a bit part in a single movie. Catering, which turned into a 1940s TV gig. Fame, of which a little, Beard says, turns out not to be enough.
Still also slips in passages about the gay Beard’s “younger man” syndrome and an ongoing bit with Elsie the cow, because Borden sponsored Beard’s first TV show. This leads to a little puppet fantasia that Olcott renders with charm but that inadvertently underlines how small Still’s reach is. Olcott never grandstands in the role, but even with its late aroma of mortality, the script is so thin you almost wish he would.
The only goal of “I Love to Eat” seems to be in line with Beard’s aim hosting dinner parties: to celebrate hearty good taste and to blithely entertain. This affectionate sketch manages that, but only to a point. It’s all sweetness without so much as a pinch of spice.
by James Still. Directed by Leon Major. Costumes, Frank Labovitz; lights, Kristin A. Thompson; composer/sound design, Matthew M. Nielson. Through Nov. 4 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. 240-644-1100, www.roundhousetheatre.org.