Photo: Matt Rapport, D’Andre McKenzie, and Justin Barron in Will Snider’s HOW TO USE A KNIFE. (Cynthia Levin)
Review: HOW TO USE A KNIFE at Unicorn Theatre
By Jason Epperson
Gourmet Chef George has hit rock bottom and accepts a job running a bar & grill kitchen owned by his douchey (sorry there’s no better word) former cook who has wined his way to restaurant ownership. Drama ensues around anger management, substance abuse, race, illegal immigration, the Rwandan genocide (yes), and guilt. Lots of guilt.
I’m honestly surprised that this is the first play I’ve seen set entirely in a restaurant kitchen. The necessities of cooking food to order, washing enough wine glasses to keep the bar going, proper preparation — like the cuts to a ticking time-bomb’s digital display in an action movie, it all adds an ominous awareness of time that’s hard to simulate in a play.
And what a kitchen it is. Gary Mosby’s set and Bret Engle’s props deliver a near-perfect replica of any greasy financial district bar & grill galley you might poke your head into, if perhaps a hair generous for New York City. Real commercial appliances work — the grill sizzles as burgers sear, the three-basin sink spits out lots of running water. Real vegetables are diced and sliced with real knives — real big knives that get sharpened on stage, slice food thin, and get waved around in faces.
The actors make great use of the set and props, apparently having disciplined themselves on how a professional kitchen truly operates. Lots of safety training and judicious stage combat techniques must have been implemented. It would usually be considered too risky to use anything but a dull safety knife on stage, but this play requires the real deal. The abundance of realism only compounds the tensions that brew, yet somehow I wasn’t thinking about it. Somehow I wasn’t evaluating “how they did that” every few minutes, or thinking “that isn’t very safe” — the precision of the actors let me settle in and just accept it.
The plot — which revolves around Chef George’s relationship with his crew and their ability to soldier on — is full of pitfalls that a novice writer may be tempted to latch on to, but author Will Snider is savvy, and the cliche choices you hope won’t happen never do. At the same time, he doesn’t insist on flipping everything on its head. It’s all very natural. Metaphors (like a razor sharp knife) get to be just that, a metaphor, and not a prop ex machina.
Fine work is on display by the entire cast, who get to use variations of “fuck” as at least seven different parts of speech. (If you are offended by my use of that word in this review, I would avoid this play.) It’s gritty language, but not “locker-room talk” if you know what I mean. It’s real. Everything about this damn play is real.
Matt Rapport as Chef George, Damron Russel Armstrong as dishwasher Steve, Brian Paulette as owner Michael, and Justin Barron as Carlos were standouts for me. If I’m nitpicking, some of Jack (J. Will Fritz) the food runner’s dialogue didn’t seem quite honest. It’s the only character that didn’t completely land for me, but Fritz does a fine job of making it work and serving the character’s purpose.
HOW TO USE A KNIFE is an exceptional new play that leaves you with more questions than answers – not questions about what happened, but a lot of “what would I do” type questions. Real people in real life making it work type questions. It’s a damn fine play, and worthy of your time and money.
HOW TO USE A KNIFE runs through February 19th. For more information visit unicorntheatre.org.