For actors, it’s the stuff of nightmares. At the final preview performance of “I Love to Eat,” the one-man James Beard culinary comedy by James Still, currently savoring its Atlanta premiere at Theatrical Outfit, William S. Murphey became convinced he had skipped 10 pages of the script.
Dressed in pajamas and a robe in Beard’s fabled Greenwich Village kitchen a few months before “The Dean of American Cookery’s” death at age 81 in 1984, Murphey is tasked with bringing to life eight iconic decades of Beard’s life in 90 minutes, solo and without an intermission.
“So, while I’m doing my current lines, all my brain can think about is what I’ve missed in the script and what I need to cover by the end of the show so everything makes sense to the audience,” Murphey recounted this week. Then the mental teleprompter clicked back on in the experienced Atlanta character actor’s head and Murphey realized with relief that he hadn’t skipped the material, he just hadn’t yet arrived to it in the script.
Then he noticed the woman in the second row who was asleep.
“All I could think up there by myself on the stage was ‘I can’t keep her awake.’” Murphey pauses and laughs. “And that’s why I get paid the star money!” Undeterred, the Suzi Bass Award-winning Theatrical Outfit Artistic Associate, who has also appeared throughout the years on stage at True Colors Theatre, Theatre in the Square, Aurora Theatre and Georgia Ensemble Theatre, finished the show to a standing ovation.
Directed by Clifton Guterman, Murphey’s portrayal of Beard is a sumptuous feast of acting, transporting audiences from Beard’s wistful childhood sense memories of beachside cookouts to his professional jealousies involving his close friend and culinary rock star Julia Child, the kindnesses extended to anonymous food-flummoxed fans who call his home and his unrequited romances with men.
“Emotionally, the script goes all over the map,” says Murphey. “As an actor, it’s wonderful to have a chance to do that. It’s fun to explore the highs and lows. Sometimes, getting there emotionally is gradual and at other points in the script, it can be sudden.”
Murphey and Guterman also have the task of introducing Beard to modern audiences 35 years after his death when, aside from the culinary awards and the New York house that bear his name, the first Dean of American Cooking has been largely forgotten in the age of “Top Chef Masters.” While Beard hosted the first-ever live cooking show, “I Love to Eat” on NBC in 1946 (sponsored by Borden dairy products), only fragments of his TV appearances still exist and other extensive footage of Beard on YouTube and elsewhere is scarce.
“His voice wasn’t something I could really latch onto,” says Murphey, who scoured the internet and Beard’s books for clues on how to play him. “It’s not like, say, Richard Nixon, where everyone knew the voice. I learned a few of his unique pronunciations and I learned his laugh. He was grounded and direct. In this play, it’s late night, we’re in his kitchen and his guard is down so I was able to fill in the blanks. I decided not to do a vocal imitation of him.”
James Still’s script also calls on Murphey as Beard to display some knife skills and be able to whip up mayonnaise from scratch on stage in real time, all while preparing one of Beard’s favorite snacks for the audience. For the role, Murphey, a home cook who enjoys making Southern dishes, including greens, cornbread and the occasional batch of fried chicken, practiced making mayonnaise at home.
“I only have about a minute and a half to make it onstage,” he says. “I still haven’t achieved the consistency I want.” The homemade mayonnaise is Beard’s preferred condiment for his favorite finger food, ornate onion sandwiches, consisting of thinly sliced onions on slices of bread cut into circles with each sandwich’s circumference enrobed in mayo and then rolled in freshly chopped flat leaf Italian parsley.
At a pivotal point in “I Love to Eat,” a table and chairs appear at the front of the stage and Murphey as Beard invites a couple up to sample his favorite culinary treat as a Theatrical Outfit assistant hands out the pungent snack to the front row, mid-show.
“We should probably be handing out Tic-Tacs along with them,” says Murphey with a laugh. “I’m not an improv actor by any stretch but I have a couple of go-to things I can say and do in that section of the show. You just have to play off of what the audience throws at you.”
Murphey also shaved his head to portray America’s first foodie. He says it’s not a look he’s going to retain once the show wraps on May 5. Says the actor: “It’s still a little jarring when I look at myself in the mirror in the morning.”
“I Love to Eat’s” script also calls on Murphey to interact with a puppet of Elsie the cow, the mascot of Borden, the dairy company who sponsored Beard’s ground-breaking NBC cooking show. “The Elsie puppet might be the biggest bugaboo in the show for me,” he says. “It took me longer to learn Elsie’s lines than Beard’s and she’s only on for a couple of minutes!”
Theatrical Outfit audiences are also marveling at set designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay and props designer Nick Battaglia’s whimsical kitchen lights made from copper strainers and kitchen gadgets and the stainless-steel ceiling fans constructed from large whisks. The magical kitchen set also allows William S. Murphey an opportunity to make, perhaps, the entrance of his career.
“A few years ago, I did ‘Mary Poppins’ at the Aurora Theatre and Galen Crawley [in the title role] got to make an entrance flying in from the ceiling,” Murphey recalls. “My entrance in this show might top that. It’s definitely a personal best!”
William S. Murphey plays James Beard in the culinary comedy “I Love to Eat” directed by Clifton Guterman at Theatrical Outfit in downtown Atlanta through May 5. For tickets and info: theatricaloutfit.org.
Production photos by Greg Mooney and courtesy of Theatrical Outfit.
James Beard’s Fireside Cookbook images by Richard L. Eldredge from his personal cookbook collection.
Stage photo and theatre exterior photos by Richard L. Eldredge
Seeing “I Love to Eat” on opening weekend prompted James Beard nominated Atlanta food writer and editor Susan Puckett to recall an impromptu phone call with the Dean of American Cookery early in her career. Read her remembrance and get Beard’s iconic onion sandwich recipe here.