William S. Murphey as James Beard in “I Love To Eat” at Theatrical Outfit. (Photo by Casey Gardner)

James Beard – chef, cookbook author, TV personality –  is the subject of Theatrical Outfit’s “I Love to Eat,” a one-man play by James Still, directed by Clifton Guterman, starring Atlanta actor William S. Murphey, and running through May 5.

I must confess that I was not familiar with James Beard until I saw “I Love to Eat” (which was the name of a national TV show hosted by the chef). Happily, I am now, and am grateful to Theatrical Outfit. Incidentally, the James Beard Foundation gives annual culinary awards to this day, and they are much prized.

How did a boy born in Portland, Oregon in 1903 make his way to living large (in every way) in his own Greenwich Village apartment in New York and become a true cosmopolite along the way? Because, in Joseph Campbell’s famous phrase, he “followed his bliss.” He loved theatre and opera and trained as a singer and actor, but those fields eluded him.

He worshiped the legendary opera prima donna Maria Callas: “To see her make an entrance was drama.” Beard may not have had an opera career, but from Callas he learned how to make an entrance—as you will see.

The entire 90-minute play takes place in 1984 in the kitchen of Beard’s lush New York apartment – designed here by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay – and furnished exquisitely with props by by Nick Battaglia. These you must see.

Photo by Greg Mooney

He lived in France during the 1920’s, a heady time to be in Paris, and experimented with French cuisine and became quite a Francophile. But when he embarked on his career as gastronomic TV host, guide, mentor, and friend, he was determined to show Americans that they did not need to be obsequious to the French. They could do nicely on their own, and he showed them how.

In the play we encounter him at home alone at night, sharing his wit, wisdom, and wistfulness with us. In affairs of the heart Beard was like Othello: He “loved not wisely but too well.” He’ll tell you about it; he was human and had disappointments; but he did not dwell in regrets.

He will show you how to cook: “Champagne gives ham a glory it’s never known”; and there are many other bon mots.

Unlike most famous people, he kept his phone number listed! He’ll interrupt his colloquy with us to take a call from a Kansas housewife needing advice—can you imagine? He loved human connection. He was openly gay but transcended labels. His primary audience was middle-American housewives. Of course Julia Child was a friend, but his fame came before hers.

Concerning William S. Murphey, who plays James Beard: He will so delight you with his glorious, effervescent performance that you’ll want to send him thank-you notes. He is funny, moving, subtle, and larger than life all at once. Director Guterman not only knew Mr. Murphey was the right choice; he was the only choice, and they work beautifully and seamlessly together.

One-person plays usually don’t work very well for me, but, happily, there are exceptions. This is one. Ultimately, “I Love to Eat” is a celebration of life, and you don’t want to miss it.

For tickets and information, visit theatricaloutfit.org.

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