A whopping number of food lovers-come-lately know James Beard only as the rotund face on the award certificates posted at the nation's best restaurants, but a new Portland Center Stage production is attempting to acquaint theater-goers with the man behind the medal. Unfortunately, like a failed souffle, the overcooked monologue ultimately falls flat.
I Love to Eat, which runs through Feb. 10, stars Rob Nagle as a vivacious Beard clad in silk pajamas. In the show's opening scene, he triumphantly emerges from a silver refrigerator to a shower of rose petal confetti, immediately settling into a 90-minute reminiscence about his Portland boyhood and a recurring cooking segment he staged for NBC back in 1946. Over the course of the evening, he takes phone calls from Julia Child and a hapless Kansas cook; opens his mail; serves canapes to folks seated in the front row and engages in a bit of nonsense with an Elsie the Cow puppet that would probably make most Beard award winners cringe.
James Still's script, first performed in 2011 by the Indiana Repertory Theater, is woven with carefully premeditated laugh lines. But the audience at Friday night's show responded most warmly to the various regional references: Beard grew up digging razor clams on the Oregon shore. The play also reveals Beard was a failed opera singer and openly gay man, but that's pretty much the extent of the information shared.
Since I'm not a theater critic, I'm in no position to assess Nagle's performance, especially since he has the difficult job of portraying a flamboyant figure who behaved as though he lived on stage. That's perhaps an interesting attribute in a colleague, but the shrill outrage and hammy asides come across as tired and cliched when the character's already starring in a one-man show. Still, Nagle (along with director Jessica Kubzansky) gets credit for his physical comfort with the role.
What's most maddening about I Love to Eat is Beard's story has the potential to fascinate. Although he confidently proclaims, "Yes, everybody's interested in food!" that wasn't universally true when he died in 1985. The life of an epicure -- the term Beard preferred to "gourmand" -- was lonely when Beard was teaching housewives how to make hamburgers. I Love to Eat timidly explores loneliness, but misses every opportunity to say anything about the evolution of eating, chefdom and culinary ethics in 20th century America. Nothing much is said, for example, about Beard's highly controversial endorsements of Omaha steaks, Green Giant corn niblets and Shasta soft drinks.
Beard's legacy is felt throughout Portland, which is astonishingly epicurean: At the Hotel Lucia, where Travel Portland arranged for me to stay, the in-room amenities include pint delivery from the much-acclaimed Salt & Straw. But the sense of Beard easily gleaned from a spoonful of pear-and-blue cheese ice cream is sadly unavailable to members of I Love to Eat's audience.