William Snider's “How to Use a Knife” is driving its point home at the Florida Studio Theatre’s latest Stage III production. I could also say it cuts deep and has a sharp wit. But let’s switch to stove metaphors.
Snider’s potboiler play simmers in the high-stress kitchen of a Wall Street steak-and-burger restaurant. The multicultural kitchen’s staffed with a callow Caucasian busboy (Michael Fraser); two wisecracking Guatemalan line cooks (Alfredo de Quesada and Omar Pelaez); and Steve (Cedric Cannon), a taciturn dishwasher who’s emigrated from Africa. The fast-talking owner (Chris Tipp) appears and introduces George (Sam Mossler), their new head chef. He’s a culinary luminary who’s fallen from the three-star heavens to the no-star purgatory of a steak joint. Blame booze and pills for George’s fall. He’s in recovery now, but barely hanging on. He’s wound too tight, and he physically abuses the slacker busboy. After that, George starts bringing the kitchen up to his high standards. Despite George’s bullying first impression, you start to like the guy. You like him even more when he takes Steve under his wing. George agrees to teach Steve the fine art of food preparation. In exchange, Steve will teach George a few meditation techniques to help control his anger.
The playwright leads you to expect a warm-hearted comedy about the meeting of two cultures. George and Steve will become friends, trade lessons. Then a complication will pop up—probably an immigration agent. The chef will help the dishwasher stay in America. (Happy ending.) Or he won’t. (Sad ending.) But that’s not what happens. Even though an immigration agent (Alexis Hyatt) appears.
Spoilers follow, gentle reader. If you want to stop reading, here’s a quick takeaway before you go: Snider combines snappy, Mamet-style dialog with fast-paced, economical scene construction. He’s written a smart black comedy; it’s well-directed and acted at FST. If you can handle a disturbing subject, you’ll be entertained.
If you want to keep reading, the spoilers start now.
OK. The promise of a touching story is a clever fake-out. The playwright is setting you up for a fall. By way of analogy …
Imagine you’re a happy Argentinian—alive and well in the middle of the last century. In the late 1940s, you befriend a balding German immigrant, who seems like a nice guy. When the authorities come looking for him, you help hide your new friend. Later, you discover that he was really Josef Mengele. And find out about what horrific things he did.
Let's just say this play delivers a similar sucker-punch and leave it at that.
Director Jason Cannon delivers on Snider’s short, sharp shock of a play. It’s a 90-minute thrill ride. Often hilarious. But it never feels safe for one second.
Mossler is outstanding in the key role of George. (His excellent, nuanced performance reminds me of Adam Arkin.) His character is a ticking time bomb on a hair trigger — a man at war with himself. Cannon humanizes the inhuman monster he portrays. His Steve has made peace with his own pain, thanks to the combined power of meditation, compartmentalization and rationalization.
In the supporting cast, De Quesada and Pelaez have a blast as the Guatemalan line cooks and the restaurant’s ad hoc comedy duo, who get most of the play’s laughs. Tipp is spot-on as the self-absorbed restaurateur. Fraser is sadly funny as Jack, the restaurant’s designated whipping boy. Hyatt shines in her brief appearances as Kim, the no-nonsense immigration agent. She seems like a bad guy at first, but really isn’t.
Snider’s play is a paradoxical mix of horror and hilarity. On the surface, it’s all about immigration. But problem of evil is really what’s at stake, and it’s vastly more complicated than the standard liberal and conservative bullet points.