Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Michael Brosilow
Is it ever possible to truly know another person? At what point should a person’s past actions define them? What are the limits of friendship? And how do you judge someone else when you are guilty of past errors as well? These are just a few of the questions probed in Shattered Globe’s provocative but funny play How to Use a Knife, now playing at Theatre Wit.
In the play, which takes place entirely on a Jeffrey Bauer set that is a realistic replica of a small restaurant kitchen, the owner has just hired a new head chef. Chef George (Peter DeFaria) comes across as a gruff, demanding, choleric man, but he harbors a very strong guilt for past alcohol abuse that led to a horrific accident. He has been hired by a friend and former employee (Michael, played by Brad Woodard) in an effort to reset his life, and though the job is far beneath someone who has cooked in three-star restaurants, he throws himself into it, knowing it’s all he can get.
Behind the counter are two Guatemalan cooks, Carlos (Dennis Garcia) and Miguel (Victor Marana). (A running joke that becomes intentionally tiresome has characters refer to them as Mexicans.) No wait staff ever appears, but we meet a busboy named Jack (Dillon Kelleher) who aspires to be a writer and a dishwasher named Steve (Anthony Irons), a silent, stoic man who also harbors a past.
Steve becomes the focus of the play. (He is even the one actually being taught how to use a knife properly.) Using calming techniques he learned, he says, as a soldier in Africa, he teaches Chef ways to control his often explosive emotions in exchange for lessons on cooking, and the two develop an unlikely friendship. Irons is excellent as Steve, all self-control and slow solidity, a wonderful foil for DeFaria’s take on Chef, which involves lots of yelling and fast-paced dialogue undoubtedly encouraged by director Sandy Shinner; this is a man who is driven to make this job work, but he’s facing long odds. Not only does he need to overcome his own past, but his staff, for the most part, is less than ideal. Carlos and Miguel seem to be perfectly adequate cooks, but they spend their days goofing around and making jokes in Spanish about the rest of the staff (including “loco” Chef) while cooking mostly burgers and fries. (Realistic grill sounds add to the ambiance, courtesy of sound designer Christopher Kriz.) Jack sneaks drinks of leftover wine and has no investment whatsoever in his work except when the wait staff is yelling at him. Even Michael is a complete waste of space. He seems far more interested in the social aspects of owning a restaurant—schmoozing, drinking fine wine, snorting cocaine, etc.—than in the daily working of the place. (He doesn’t even know the names of his employees other than Chef.) Only Steve does his job calmly and well, so naturally he is the most misunderstood one in the kitchen, bearing the brunt of other characters’ jokes and remarks.
Enter Kim (Michelle Bester), an immigration agent who has been tasked with finding a man named Etien, an accused war criminal from Rwanda who has been living in America under an assumed name. (You’re way ahead of me here, aren’t you?) As Chef grows more and more suspicious that Steve and Etien are the same man, he needs to make a decision about how to proceed. Does he turn his only real friend in to the authorities? Can he possibly not? How to Use a Knife becomes a story about the weight of moral imperatives. For Steve, having lived through atrocities, war is war and a job is a job. For Chef, whose past is an atrocity, there is no separating a man from his actions…including himself.
Director Shinner provides machine-gun paced dialogue while the kitchen is working, the sound and speed easily mimicking that of a real restaurant kitchen. But it is in the quieter times that the play really shines. The one on one scenes between Chef and Steve are the core of the play, breaking down the raucous chaos of the cooking scenes into contemplative and possibly redemptive moments.
How to Use a Knife is almost two plays. The first is witty and frenetically paced; the second is highly dramatic and powerful. Whether you can make the leap with Will Snyder’s script will determine how you react to this play. I had a difficult time on occasion reconciling the two, but I can’t imagine this show being done any better than Shattered Globe does it.
How to Use a Knife is a Shattered Globe Theatre production now playing at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago, until June 9. Performance times vary; check the website at Shattered Globe Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.