For most of its hour and 45 minutes, “How to Use a Knife” strafes its audience with a nonstop barrage of profane verbal machine gunfire.
Set in the kitchen of a New York restaurant, Will Snider’s play (it’s receiving world-premiere performances more or less simultaneously in Sacramento, Calif., Indianapolis and at Kansas City’s Unicorn Theatre) is both a richly comic exploration of a very specific environment and, in its latter stages, a serious drama about monumental guilt.
As the play opens, restaurant owner Michael (Brian Paulette) is introducing his new chef, George (Matt Rapport), to the other employees.
Michael — a hilariously sleazy fast-talker who might be a speed freak — explains that his business-district eatery has a decent lunch business, but that there’s not much going on at night. Burgers and steaks, fries and tossed salads.
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It’s not exactly a primo gig for a man with George’s experience. As we’ll learn, George has frittered away his career in a haze of booze and pills and is desperate for a fresh start. This will have to do.
The Guatemalan cooks, Carlos (Justin Barron) and Miguel (D’Andre McKenzie), jabber in Spanish and amuse each other by joking about their co-workers (you don’t need to speak Spanish to appreciate their disses).
The busboy Jack (J. Will Fritz) is a pasty college grad who gets picked on by just about everyone. He’s the kind of guy who will look and act 15 when he’s 50.
And at the dishwashing station is Steve (Damron Russel Armstrong), a hulking African whom everyone assumes is Muslim and mute.
All this unfolds on a kitchen set by Gary Mosby that is so realistic it even has food scraps scattered under the prep tables.
The film’s dramatic heart lies in the friendship that develops between the demoralized George and Steve, who isn’t mute after all.
Steve has a unnatural stillness and calm about him, a quality that George desperately needs. They strike a deal. After hours, Steve will teach George how to meditate away his anxiety, and George will teach Steve how to cook.
In the process the two become friends and confidants, sharing their most hidden secrets. For George it’s a horrifying family trauma; for Steve it’s a genocidal conflict.
A seventh character shows up late in the play, an immigration agent (Carla Noack) on the trail of a war criminal. She wants all the restaurant’s employment records.
The play’s shift from rudely realistic comedy (David Mamet was clearly a big influence on playwright Snyder) to much darker themes isn’t particularly nuanced, and one may leave “How to Use a Knife” thinking there’s less here than meets the eye.
But, oh, what an opportunity it provides for actors to bare their teeth and chow down with relish! Director Sidonie Garrett and her cast dish up a thespian feast.
These characters are in your face but absolutely believable. Most of them have found ways to survive the deadening monotony of their jobs (a monotony that is, paradoxically, based on high levels of stress). Sometimes acting crazy is the only way to avoid actually going crazy.
Every player delivers a fully-rounded personality. I was particularly taken with the world-class smarminess of Paulette’s restaurant owner.
But the stars of the show are Rapport and Armstrong, who develop a palpable friendship that will be sorely tested.
Rapport’s George is a grouch yearning for human connection, who then must betray that connection. Near play’s end he goes on a kitchen-wrecking rampage that is like something out of an early Sam Shepard work.
Armstrong’s Steve (not his real name) is an astonishingly calm and dignified individual who, likewise, has been living in a lonely bubble. A man with much to hide, he cannot help but open long-suppressed secrets to his new pal.
And, man, his African accent is flawless.
Read freelancer Robert W. Butler's movie reviews at ButlersCinemaScene.com.