Tuesday night's Magnificent Mile opening — or rather re-heating — of the TimeLine Theatre Company's production of "To Master the Art" was, for a number of reasons, quite the celebratory brioche. Here was a cooked-in-Chicago play about the great Julia Child, the legendary, no-nonsense, big-boned ambassador of Le Cordon Bleu and all for which la cuisine francaise stood. Here, mais oui, was Karen Janes Woditsch in one of the truly magnifique Chicago performances of the last few years. Here, thanks to a new group called the Chicago Commercial Collective, was the oft-elusive, job-creating transfer to a high-profile locale of a 2010 off-Loop hit.
No wonder they were serving beef bourguignon in the lobby. Child's recipe, I can note from personal attempts at preparation, is definitive. "When beef stew is in the oven, all's right with the world," Child famously noted. And, with sincere apologies to my vegetarian mother-in-law, "d'accord" is the only thing I can ever say to that. For the record, the dog agrees.
Is "To Master the Art," the play, a work of formidable dramatic art? Non. It is a serviceable, romantic, accessible, gentle piece of biographical writing from William Brown and Doug Frew that cannot help but wrap up its central couple, Julia and Paul Child, in the kind of halo that, I think, they both would have eschewed, given the choice. Some of the dialogue is a tad forced, although many of the supporting characters in the Childs' orbit (chefs, pals, collaborators) are colorful, exuberant types, mostly broadly played here. But enjoyably so.
And the script ranges un peu deeper than was the case in 2010. Only un peu. There is still too much of the kind of air in this show that works only inside a Julia Child souffle. (Directing your own work, as the skilled Brown inadvisably does here, makes it tough to wield a butcher's knife.) To wit: The last scene can't bring itself to end. The narrative gets distracted by the travails of a minor character, Heidi Kettenring's radical Jane, who, thanks to a fiery performance from Kettenring that does not blend so well with the whole, almost swallows the show in a climactic scene. And those cinematic, things-are-moving-so-fast scenes with agents and publishers are predictable and bland.
If the oven temperature were set at a hotter mark, cooking time could be reduced by at least 15 minutes. Brevity always tastes good.
I'd also note, since we're getting the pepper out of the way, that the producers needed to open their wallets a bit more here. On a bigger downtown stage, this set looks cheap. And one cannot do Julia Child cut-rate — it's the equivalent of buying your bearnaise sauce pre-made at Trader Joe's. Non. Non. Non.
Oh, but, what a central performance!
Woditsch has only improved as she has braised these last couple of years within this role. Consider: it's an incredibly tough assignment. Not only was Child a real person with a long record of TV shows, some on YouTube, but this obscure actress who calls herself Meryl Streep got there first.
Like a woman possessed, Woditsch bats down all those obstacles as if she were deboning a menagerie of wild beasts for her pots. Woditsch's magnificent Childs nails the physicality, the humor, the determination and, most impressive of all, the vulnerability of a woman who needed to reinvent herself within the hostile environment (for Americans, at least) that is the French establishment. It is a piece of acting not to be missed, and it's supported with earnestness by Craig Spidle as Paul Childs and embellished with (take-your-time) flourish by Terry Hamilton as her mentor chef.
I wish Child would cook more in the show: We see her scramble some eggs, badly, in an early scene and she decorates a tart with some berries. But much of the action deals with her obsession with testing her recipes, so there is ample chance, surely, for some coq au vin, pissladiere or cherry clafouti. That would mean re-working the set: The show gets trapped with the kitchen at the back, which does not work at the Broadway Playhouse. But it would be worthwhile and a great deal of fun. Even with all these reservations, I still think "To Master the Art" is a good time that
will be a warm-centered end to a day spent shopping at Sur La Table or Crate & Barrel, or as a prequel to dinner at Cyrano's or Bistrot Zinc.
I hear tell there is another Julia Child project with Broadway as its aim. Her story is a natural for a fusion between drama and cuisine. In its best moments, "To Master the Art" captures what Child herself caught: that sweet spot between popularizing an art, making it comprehensible for a wider population, while protecting its fundamental integrity. It is a struggle familiar to everyone who writes, plays, teaches or performs and both Child and Woditsch make it seem possible,
just as long as you always cook fresh stuff from scratch.
When: Through Oct. 20
Where: Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $25-$75 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com