Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

How to Use a Knife
InterAct Theatre Company
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Also see Rebecca's review of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey


Scott Greer and Lindsay Smiling
Photo by Jason Lindner
How to Use a Knife resembles several bad plays smashed together. Will Snider's tiresome slog of a one-act, in a National New Play Network rolling world premiere presented in Philadelphia by InterAct Theatre Company, takes on the gritty underbelly of the restaurant industry; the classic addiction and recovery narrative; the buddy comedy; and the stranger with a secret intrigue plot. It fails in each respect, sometimes spectacularly.

The restaurant angle—a former hotshot, previously felled by addiction, regains his mojo at a joint a couple Zagat levels below his pay grade—might have been interesting twenty years ago, before Bourdain and Ramsay were household names. But now that drill sergeant chefs screaming at their staff is basically an accepted form of entertainment, it seems rather old hat. The chef here is George (Scott Greer), who still acts like the cock of the walk, even though he's been reduced to slinging burgers to day traders at a second-rate Wall Street saloon owned by his former line cook (Jered McLenigan, appropriately smarmy). George can shape up the kitchen in a matter of moments—he gets the sassy cooks (played by J Hernandez and Angel Sigala) shouting "Yes, chef!," and tries to knock some sense into Jack, the cocky busboy (the charming Trevor William Fayle). But alas, he cannot keep his own demons at bay—more on that later.

George is immediately drawn to Steve (Lindsay Smiling), the restaurant's quiet but hardworking African dishwasher. Before long, Steve persuades George to give him cooking lessons after hours, and an unlikely friendship forms. The men both have something to offer each other: George can teach Steve a skill that will allow him to escape the monotony of washing dishes, and Steve's shaman-like presence not only calms the temperamental chef, but encourages him to face some of the more problematic elements of his personality and his past. Of course, Steve harbors a secret, which he reveals bit by bit over the course of these late night tête-à-têtes.

This busy plot probably could have been tamed by a more skilled writer. In Snider's hands, the script is a parade of clichés and caricatures. The dialogue is chock full of stock lines that have been uttered in a thousand similar plays, from George telling his kitchen staff that he "runs a tight ship" to Jack shouting that he won't always have to work in places like this. Steve spends most of the early scenes speaking in sophisticated-sounding aphorisms, which give the uncomfortable impression that the character functions as little more than a trope—the wise black man who exists to guide and save the pitiable white protagonist.

And that is what we get for the most part, despite some fine work from Smiling, one of Philly's better resident actors. Both he and Greer are weighted down by a lack of depth in the writing, which turns George and Steve into wooden archetypes. Greer is entertaining when he's in blustery chef mode, but his character's painful personal revelation—so obvious it could be seen from space—is handled casually and carelessly, leaving him with little space to craft anything approaching three-dimensionality. Similarly, the writing does not allow Smiling to infuse Steve with either the humanity or the foreboding sense of dread necessary for the character to work. Even the best actors can only go so far with material that doesn't strive to create flesh and blood humans.

Seth Rozin's production has the feel of something mechanically constructed. The actors move inorganically around Colin McIlvaine's convincingly detailed kitchen set, as if waiting to hit their marks. This rigidity does little to suggest a natural sense of ease between George and Steve, which makes their private confabs seem too stagey—a relationship that exists strictly to advance plot points. Their long scenes together are less a chess match and more an uncomfortable interview between two unwilling participants.

Near the end of the play, Snider introduces one more element—a subplot involving Immigration and Customs Enforcement so jarringly specific that it is rendered wholly unconvincing. (Maria Konstantinidis does fine work as an ICE agent, though.) This final machination acts as little more than an engine to get us to the play's predictable conclusion, by which point we know even less about the characters than we ever did. This could have been avoided, had Snider devoted more time to understanding the inner lives of the two men at the center of his tale, rather than using them as marks for easy laughs and unearned pathos. But ultimately, How to Use a Knife is an assortment of familiar tropes masked by a thin veneer of timeliness and topicality.

How to Use a Knife continues through Sunday, June 18, 2017, at The Proscenium at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. Tickets can be purchased online at www.interacttheatre.org, or by calling 215-568-8079.


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