He’s regarded as one of the great names in the culinary world, with annual awards named after him, but not many people know the story of James Beard’s life. The just-opened “I Love to Eat,” being presented by Theatrical Outfit, attempts to shed some light on the openly gay chef, cookbook author, and personality.
Veteran Atlanta actor Bill Murphey plays Beard in the new play while openly gay Clifton Guterman, the company’s associate artistic director, directs. Before the project, Guterman knew about some of Beard’s professional accomplishments but very little about the man himself. He and the show’s gay playwright James Still had worked together in 2007 and kept in touch. Still reached out in 2016 and sent the script, aware of the company’s successes with one-man shows. “He had never had the play produced in the South and Atlanta is such a foodie city now,” says Guterman. “He thought it would be a good fit.”
The playwright’s only stipulation was that the company have someone who could handle Beard — physically and emotionally — and Clifton and the Theatrical Outfit staff knew instantly that Murphey could pull it off if he wanted to.
Murphey read the play and quickly jumped aboard. “He’s larger than life and multi-dimensional,” says Murphey of the character. “Beard said many times that his favorite vegetable was an onion and there are so many layers to James Beard. We keep peeling away. He is mercurial and goes from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. He has a love of life. He is funny, wild, sad. I get to run the whole gamut of emotions with him. It’s fun but terrifying. I couldn’t be more excited and nervous.”
The play takes place in the middle of the night in 1984. Beard can’t sleep, comes down for a midnight snack and realizes he has 200 guests in his kitchen. “He spends about 90 minutes talking about his journey to becoming a caterer and chef, his travels around the world, his friendships with people like Julia Child,” says Guterman. “He also takes on a flashback to 1946 when he had the first live cooking show ever on TV — ‘I Love to Eat,’ with Elsie the Cow.”
According to Murphey, Beard had an unsuccessful career as an actor and had also trained to be an opera singer. He found out what he knew was food. He went to New York where he and some friends started a catering service. Besides doing that, he wrote articles for newspapers and made appearances here and there.
He was out as much as he could be during the time. “It was not a secret among his friends, but this was early to mid-twentieth century and he couldn’t live as openly or publicly as he wanted to,” says Murphey. “If you look today, you’d say of course he was gay. He was beloved by men and women alike. Maybe it just didn’t occur to them he could be gay.”
Beard had a live-in lover — a younger Italian pastry chef, he put on the 4th floor of his building, — who lived there until after Beard died. “Everyone in the restaurant world in New York knew it but he didn’t talk about it much,” says Guterman.
This is the last weekend to catch Topher Payne’s world premiere re-mount of his “Angry Fags, “ which he opened in 2013 at 7 Stages. It still revolves around two gay friends and how they respond when one of their tribe is brutally assaulted. This time, the gay playwright has updated the show for the Trump era.