Opera music booms and steam spills out from beneath the giant onstage refrigerator as I Love to Eat begins. As the song builds and steam obscures the floor, James Beard (Rob Nagle) strides out of the fridge. Dressed in striped silk pajamas and a floor-length blue robe, he chuckles in faux modesty as an unremitting cascade of rose petals falls from above. "Moderation!" he roars. "I'm against it!"
Yet for such a grandiose proclamation, I Love to Eat, directed by Jessica Kubzansky, feels less like a rich meal than a scattered sampler of tasty but underwhelming tidbits. James Still's chatty script has the celebrated chef recounting culinary and childhood reminiscences, taking phone calls from both fans and Julia Child, preparing mayonnaise and chopping parsley for canapes and, in some brief spots, revealing and then brushing off stories of loneliness and unrequited love. Though peppered with a few lovely moments—the Portland-born Beard recalls digging for razor clams and grilling ham on the beach in Gearhart, for example—this West Coast premiere neither digs enough into Beard's underlying melancholy nor sufficiently plays up his convivial wit.
Given the bony and episodic script, Nagle's performance mostly impresses. He's outwardly jovial but slightly distant and insecure, at one point revealing his fear of the day his phone stops ringing. Set inside the gourmand's comfortable New York apartment—with an immense world map providing a perplexing and distracting backdrop—the production jumps between informal confessional and re-enactments of Beard's 1940s cooking show. Nagle kicks down any traces of the fourth wall, and he endears himself to the audience with knowing glances, dramatic flourishes of the arm and self-aware delivery of lines tailor-made for tittering Portland audiences. "I did some theater in Portland," he purrs, swinging his hands open to invite the laugh. But many of the lines are so slick or painstakingly choreographed ("the two most fabulous inventions of the last century are the Cuisinart and call waiting") they fail to elicit more than a polite giggle. Nagle, whose accent makes numerous confusing shifts throughout the play's course, does his best with the play's tonally episodic nature, but nothing can save him in the incongruous, kiddie scenes with a bovine hand puppet.
At one point, Beard fields a call from a frazzled home cook in Kansas. He encourages her to pour the disaster down the sink. "That's the way it is in the kitchen," he says. "Sometimes it all goes boom." But that's the problem with Still's unfocused script—though it carries on at a gentle simmer, it never makes much of a bang.
SEE IT: I Love to Eat is at the Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Sundays, 2 pm Saturdays-Sundays, noon Thursdays through Feb. 3. $39-$65.