Friday, January 20, 2017

"How to Use a Knife": The workaday world gets its head messed with by the real world

A play that carries a simple instruction in its title has to hint at something much more, or there wouldn't be anything dramatic about it. How-to advice just sits there waiting to be applied to a particular end. Will Snider's "How to Use a Knife" doesn't follow the lesson plan.

George withstands the scrutiny of Kim (Chelsea Anderson) and Michael (Rob Johansen)
Phoenix Theatre's National New Play Network show implies an "open sesame" to a skill set with a world of possibilities. The play begins as a coruscating workplace comedy and ends up as devastation, with a tiny hint of hope. The setting is the kitchen of a restaurant in Lower Manhattan, well arranged and equipped in gleaming stainless steel in James Gross' set design, staffed by a rowdy night crew just coming under the supervision of a new chef.

Both tool and weapon from the dawn of human society, the knife here represents a deep secret in the life of Steve, the dishwasher. The one low-key member of the kitchen night crew keeps such a low profile that the restaurant owner, Michael, is unaware of his national origin or anything else about him, and his co-workers have scarcely any more insight. The Hispanics on the crew nickname him "the man of blood," a sobriquet of prophetic force.

Steve (Ansley Valentine) warns George (Ryan Artzberger) of the mental "click" he needs to control.,
The atmosphere reflects the stress of restaurant work, modulated effectively under Bryan Fonseca's direction. Its typical pace and the variety of moving parts with little margin of error mean its hierarchical organization is typically unsettled, with chaos always on the horizon. In Rob Johansen's hilariously febrile portrayal, Michael is a former line cook who thumbed his nose at the Peter Principle by rising above his level of incompetence, thanks to schmoozing with money men at the bar. As owner, he covers up for undeserved success with nonstop ignorant bluster and a coarse way of skating over the surface of everything, topped by a little self-congratulation on having given a second chance to George, who was once his boss.

Line cooks Miguel and Carlos operate as a team keeping Jack, the runner, on edge.
No one with significant work experience can ever doubt how much personality influences success and even survival in the job market. At the low end of the totem pole, you get people who may be stuck long-term in wearying if essential jobs rubbing shoulders with those who are determined to rise. Carlos (Carlos Medina Maldonado) and Miguel (Wheeler Castaneda) are a couple of Guatemalans, one of them hiding illegal status, who form a jovial yet feisty team as line cooks.

Jack (Tommy Lewey) is a runner/busboy ambitious to be a writer, with a short fuse he tries to snuff in order to give substance to his vague ambitions. And Steve's reason for being where he is and keeping a low profile, when finally exposed by a persistent official, occasions the upheaval that holds sway over the second act. We are invited to look deep into someone with a monstrous past and a well-structured strategy for exercising self-control. That's sustained with a special kind of melodious evenness in Ansley Valentine's performance. Chelsea Anderson sounded the right steely note of nemesis as the agent in pursuit of a Rwandan war criminal.

The performances were all vivid and idiomatic, true to the ratcheted-up tempo of New York life — something that always flummoxes my Midwestern temperament whenever I visit, though I am Manhattan-born. (Many of the interludes in Brian G. Hartz's sound design are drum-solo excerpts, sounding for all the world like the tightly-wound Buddy Rich.) The playwright's style picks up the rhythm of repetition and routine in restaurant work, the repeated orders and regular flare-ups,  and extends that into most of the dialogue. Characters ask each other if they mean what they just said. There's lots of repetition and paraphrase. Questions often are meant to be taken as challenges. Constant self-assertion is required in this world, even if you aren't quite sure just what you are asserting. The action moves forward sometimes in back-and-forth sparring that seems static or just funny; then you suddenly realize these are people in a different place with each other than they had been just moments before. I was reminded of early Harold Pinter: "Tea Party" or "The Homecoming."

Ryan Artzberger's performance as George, tentatively trying to find his way back from multiple addictions that have destroyed his family, was masterly from first to last on opening night. In personal retrospect, this actor thrives in roles with a mixture of good and bad at their core. Neither Atticus Finch (Indiana Repertory Theatre) nor Iago (Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre) brought out the best in him.

George does; the character has inner resources that it takes his friendship with Steve to nurture. But there are also loads of vulnerability, which no local actor can convey better vocally than Artzberger. That quaver, that catch in the throat — no one has a resource like that so naturally and aptly available. For George, a complete breakdown must happen first, after Steve's past difficulties come to light and he is forced to leave the restaurant ahead of the law.

Some rages onstage rivet your attention for their all-out energy; George's also breaks your heart, because Artzberger connects it so well to the weaknesses George has exhibited and to how he processes Steve's mysterious lesson on how to find inner peace. That lesson may eventually sustain him more than his ominously superfluous instruction to Steve in how to use a knife.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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