Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Back for a second helping, "To Master the Art" continues to satiate our hunger for good theater

Julia Child (Karen Janes Woditsch) learns the proper way to scramble
an egg from master chef Max Bugnard (Terry Hamilton)

You probably don’t need the sweet, buttery smell of shallots cooking to know that TimeLine Theatre Company’s production of “To Master the Art” is the theatrical equivalent of comfort food. It would be nostalgic, sentimental and absolutely delicious without the onstage cooking.

And while the smell of cooking shallots will have you salivating, it is the performance of Karen Janes Woditsch as famed chef and author Julia Child that foodies and fans of good theater will savor. 

Woditsch gives one of the best performances of this season and the show is not to be missed.  
Though essentially a remounting of TimeLine’s 2010 off-Loop hit (there have been some minor tweaks to the book by William Brown and Doug Frew), this is anything but a reheated leftovers. Woditsch gives a performance that has both aged like a fine wine and marinated like a cut of beef. It’s sumptious, humorous and ultimately uplifting. There is perhaps no greater honor to a master chef who once quipped that food was “one of the simplest and nicest pleasures.” 

The play’s plot doesn’t cover much new ground (most of this was covered in either Child’s autobiography My Life in France and/or in the film “Julie & Julia”). Gourmands and fans of the late chef and author will find all the major highlights of Child’s time in France are covered here from the development of her sophisticated palate after a soul and spirit-defining first meal in France (a lunch of oysters, sole meuni√®re and , because it is after all France, a bottle of white wine), through her humble determination to be accepted as an equal and not just some American debutante at the famed Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. 

The play also dwells on Child’s study under master chef Max Bugnard (the superb Terry Hamilton), her fateful meeting with Simone Beck (Jeannie Affelder, whose Simca gradually warms to both Child as a person and the nickname of “Simca” that Child bestows on her), the co-founding with Beck of the cooking school L'√©cole des trois gourmandes, the decade spent writing the groundbreaking 726-page tome “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” with her and the struggle to get the book, which would eventually have an impact on American kitchens which continues to this very day.

Child’s relationship to her husband Paul (Craig Spidle) is, of course, tested while she struggles to get her book published and he is interrogated in Washington D.C. at the height of McCarthyism. The pair is a little too supportive of each other’s life choices and endeavors. They rarely argue in the show; this seems more playwrights Brown and Frew’s idolizing of their subject matter than it does with reality (every happily married couple I know fights over things big and small). 

Other notable performances include Sam Ashdown as Carolina, a fellow culinary student who dreams of opening a sophisticated barbecue shack and Janet Ulrich Brooks as both Child’s cooking school nemesis Madame Dorin and her book-publishing advocate Avis. 

Jane (Heidi Kettenring) prepares to say 'au revoir' to the Childs.
If there is any edge to the show it is with the character of Jane Foster (Heidi Kettenring). A friend who served with the Childs in WWII, Foster was famously indicted by a Federal grand jury for espionage in 1957 (charges she continued to refute until her death in 1979). A scene set towards the end as the Childs are preparing to move back to the states has Foster realizing she will never return stateside. It allows Kettenring to display her formidable acting chops, but it’s the culinary equivalent of getting a spoonful of aspic when you had been eating fruit salad. 

“To Master the Art” runs through Oct. 20 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut. Tickets, $24-$75. Call (800) 775-2000.

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