At the trendy low-scale New York eatery, owner Mike wants to make things upscale, by hiring his former boss George, a former top chef, now a middle-age divorced alcoholic fresh from drug and alcohol rehab. That is the set up for “How To Cut With A Knife” by Will Snider and directed by Seth Rozin in its premiere run at InterAct Theatre.
Snider also makes this an intense character study and clash of cultures. George may be on the professional skids, but this is his opportunity to rebuild his life or to accept the fact that he’s a failure. As soon as Mike introduces him to Mike’s line cooks Carlos and Angel, he humbles himself in thanking Mike and as soon as Mike leaves, he tells line cooks Carlos and Angel that he actually hates him.
The fat starts to simmer as George barks orders and seems clueless at how glaringly out of place he is. Carlos and Angel go along for as much as it is worth to keep everything under control, pumping out a busy business lunch trade. They speak Spanish, but have to constantly remind that they are Guatemalan, not Mexican.
Meanwhile, quietly doing his work in the corner in complete silence is the dishwasher, who we find out is from West Africa, but is not Muslim and doesn’t have an exotic African name as George seems to assume. His name is Steve, he tells George, but even as they get started on the wrong foot, they strike up a friendship.
George also sees how disciplined and thorough he is for every task and asks him if he would like to become an expediter, so he starts teaching him basic sous chef skills late into the night. During their after-hours tutorials, they start to open up to each other, but friendly curiosity they have about each others’ pasts turns into disquieting and eventually demeaning interrogation.
But there are still mysteries that draw the men to each other, other than loneliness, each trying to outlive their pasts. Snider finally starts to get to the central story. They tell each other about their past lives, and are forthcoming about some shocking details. Snider doesn’t completely convince that he would connect in this way. But past that, this devise leads to riveting dramatic tension for these actors.
Rozin’s sharp pacing saves and his fine sense of physical theater, rescues some very talky scenes that would otherwise risk becoming static. Anyone who has worked in the kitchen knows that the choreography of cooks, dishwashers and waiters has to hum along to get the job done in sync and Rozin’s inventiveness and pacing captures this energy.
As George, Scott Greer seems a notch too shrill, but Greer spellbinds with his fine interior performance that balances it out. Lindsay Smiling is equally brilliant as the grounded Steve, emotionally reaching out to George, but mysterious and unnerving as he tries to reconcile his past.
J Hernandez‘s Carlos is wry and subtle, and uses humor to neutralize any disruption to his work. Carlos speaks English to George, but Spanish to Miguel, and many of those lines elicited big laughs from those in the audience who understood the ironies lost in translation. Angel Sigala is equally engaging as sous chef Miguel. Sigala is currently a theater major at Temple University.
Trevor William Fayle plays Jack, the abused food runner who wants to be a writer, and otherwise has heavy lifting to do with the sketchiness of his part, Snider giving him repeated petty fights with the other characters that get cold fast. Jared McLenigan is creepily hilarious as the boorish restaurant owner Mike and Maria Konstantinidis makes the most of ICE agent Kim who is threatening to shake-down the place for green cards if Mike doesn’t aid her in finding a suspect on the run for alleged war crimes in Rwanda.
Colin McIlvaine’s impeccable design for the kitchen is so realistic it seems like it could pump out orders to the audience any time. In tandem with lighting by Robin Stamey and sound by Larry Fowler, it is a chilling surgical backdrop some rich food for thought.