I Love to Eat at IRT: Hungry for Life

If you’ve never been to a one-man play, it’s a very different theater-going experience. It’s intimate, almost awkwardly so: there’s nowhere for either the audience or the actor to hide. No fancy sets, no costume changes, no cast mates to pick up the slack. Just a man, a stage and an audience.

And to be honest, “I Love to Eat,” part of the Going Solo festival at the Indianapolis Repertory Theatre, is a little awkward–in the best way possible. Robert Neal portrays James Beard, the larger-than-life father of American gastronomy. Before Emeril, before Julia, there was James. The play focuses on Beard in his later years, lonely, plagued by health problems and struggling to come to terms with the fame and the love he never truly found.

Neal portrays startling range, from Beard’s over-the-top bravado to a hilariously stilted impression of Beard in the first ever TV cooking show (the 1946 “I Love to Eat,” of which no footage survives) to quiet moments of despair and doubt. He even cooks on stage, the scent of onions and lemons wafting through the audience. If you sit in the front row, you might even score a sandwich. It’s an exhausting performance to watch.

The telephone becomes a second character in the play, a messenger that brings the validation Beard craves and reminds him of the world he no longer belongs to. He alternately pounces on the phone with exclamations of “goodie goodie!” and watches it with fear and loathing.

James Still’s script is mostly solid, though there’s a misguided bit that involves a cow puppet that is more confusing than edifying. The lighting is dramatic, setting the scene as Beard moves through his memories–the Oregon coast where he grew up, the TV studio where he made his fame.

“I Love to Eat” is a complex play about a man who wanted too much–too much food, too much fame, too much recognition. And it’s very much worth watching.

“I Love to Eat” runs through October 23 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. Tickets are available at irtlive.com. Reviewer’s tickets were provided courtesy of IRT.