At its core, Will Snider’s “How to Use a Knife” is a play that explores the dark side of the human condition. The play is enjoying its first production as part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premieres at Capital Stage, where it opened last Saturday night. While its core is both powerful and potentially dramatic, the play is also laden (perhaps excessively) with humor, much of it of the laugh-out-loud variety.
Drawn from his own experience as a waiter in a New York City restaurant and from his interest in the Rwanda genocide in the mid-1990s, Mr. Snider sets his action in the kitchen of a Wall Street restaurant that caters primarily to the lunch crowd (burgers and fries are the staple, with steaks, fries, and a salad the high-end offering). Into this kitchen, the restaurant’s owner (Michael) brings his old cooking mentor (George) to be the new chef. George is looking for redemption from his years as a drug addicted alcoholic, and his passion for running a tight, well-managed kitchen is the hoped-for path to that redemption.
Before George arrives, the kitchen staff is introduced. It consists of two Spanish speaking immigrants from Guatemala and a young, struggling busboy (struggling to fit into the kitchen scene and struggling to make a career for himself as a writer). The Guatemalans are the cooks and they provide much of the early humor, with one of them, Miguel, speaking only Spanish, and the other, Carlos, leading the verbal assault on the kid (Jack) while engaging in the banter with his fellow cook.
A fourth kitchen worker is seen but not heard in these early scenes. He is Steve, the dishwasher. Steve is a black man, who, as ultimately revealed, is a Rwandan Tutsi who was born in Uganda. The relationship that develops between Steve and George forms the heart of the play, but by the time it develops, so much laughter has been evoked by the other workers that the impact of the two men’s relationship can be initially under-appreciated. Only in later scenes (the play is one long act, without intermission) does the drama unfold between the two. It leads to a stunning denouement that gives the play its ultimate gravitas.
The Capital Stage production is directed by Producing Artistic Director Michael Stevenson, who spares nothing in the way he has the key dramatic scene depicted. The set features what certainly looks like a fully functional restaurant kitchen (scaled down to size for the intimate stage and the smaller cast). The scenic design is by Brian Harrower (with lighting designed by Ron Madonia, costumes by Rebecca Redmond, and sound by Ed Lee).
The cast is led by Harry Harris in the pivotal role of George, with Adrian Roberts co-starring as Steve. Mr. Roberts’ portrayal of the man who offers George a way to combat his rage was spot on, but it was the revelation of his own character’s pain that made his performance stand out.
Mr. Harris’s George lacked nuance on opening night, and the role seems to call for it. He shouts a lot, so much so that it is hard to discern when the shouting matters or is intended to have greater significance. In one early scene, for example, in which George tries to educate Jack on the process used to manage the patrons’ food orders, he appeared to be more scolding Jack than teaching him. That scene’s purpose seems to be to show George’s passion for his work, if not his desire to teach Jack, but Mr. Harris delivered the lines with the same seemingly angry intensity he displayed throughout most of his performance.
The supporting cast features great performances from Willem Long (Carlos) and Eduardo A. Esqueda (Miguel) as the immigrant cooks and from Kirk Blackinton as the offensive restaurant owner. Mr. Long and Mr. Esqueda just appear to have fun with their roles, which befits their characters, and they invoke much of the laughter that continues throughout the 100-minute single act. And Mr. Blackinton perfectly portrays a man who is tone deaf to everyone he interacts with (and blatantly bigoted to boot), as the insensitive, uncaring restaurant owner. Rounding out the cast are Cole Winslow as Jack and Kelley Ogden as the immigration investigator whose questions alert George to Steve’s dark past.
It would be too easy to label “How to Use a Knife” as fun theater. The many laughs that are evoked throughout the play would suggest that it is, but that clearly is not the playwright’s main intent. Instead, think of it as entertaining and thought-provoking, which is exactly the kind of play Capital Stage exists to produce.
Performances of “How to Use a Knife” continue at the Capital Stage Theater through October 2. Tickets and information are available at the theater box office (2215 J Street), online (capstage.org), or by phone (916-995-5464).