Set in the hectic kitchen of a restaurant in New York’s Financial District, Will Snider’s How to Use a Knife focuses on a friendship that develops between two men – one a chef, the other a dishwasher – who each have dark secrets in their past. One of these secrets is individual, a consequence of addiction. The other is more social and involves a major modern African genocide.
According to his bio in the program for InterAct Theatre Company’s new production, Playwright Snider is currently in grad school, but he spent three years before that working in agricultural development in East Africa. The events in the second character’s background obviously have strong personal meaning to him. However, How to Use a Knife stresses this topicality, plus a somewhat mechanical use of story structure, over characterization and language. The elements for gripping drama are all in place, but they sometimes come off as hackneyed. And apart from the central characters, George (Scott Greer) and Steve (Lindsay Smiling), the other characters often feel like padding to provide atmosphere.
Fortunately, Director Seth Rozin has given the play a top-notch production that finds all the meat inside the text and brings it to the fore.
Key to this are the individual performances of Greer and Smiling, and the chemistry between the two. Both actors reliably strengthen any play they appear in, whether in a lead or a supporting role. Here they shine in their ability to suggest unplumbable depths of hidden emotion. In their final scene, despite the playwright’s nearly fatal telegraphing of the content, they still find moments of palpable danger.
The rest of the cast also does memorable work, transcending the characters’ limitations. Guatemalan cook Carlos is the most developed of the supporting characters, and J Hernandez fills the role with wisecracking energy. (He also provides a nuanced warning to George in one of the play’s strongest scenes.) Maria Konstantinidis as government official Kim, Jered McLenigan as douchey restaurant owner Michael, Trevor William Fayle as slumming busboy Jack, and newcomer Angel Sigala as cook Miguel (whose lines are, with the exception of a memorable comic moment, entirely spoken in Spanish) deliver solid performances that make you want to see them in parts with more substance.
Rozin has paced the production strongly: the production doesn’t drag, nor does it feel rushed. Lighting Designer Robin Stamey and Sound Designer Larry Fowler support the hyper-naturalistic setting fluidly. Natalia de la Torre’s costumes reflect each character’s personality effortlessly – and cleverly, in Miguel’s case. And Colin McIlvaine’s set starts out as a Health Inspector’s dream of a restaurant kitchen. (Which I say with confidence, as the son of a Health Inspector and a former dishwasher.) McIlvaine has grown into one of Philadelphia’s top scenic designers: his work here, as with his designs for Theatre Exile’s The Invisible Hand and Lost Girls, consistently belies the budget and space constraints with which he’s working.
During the run of the play, InterAct is also continuing their admirable ancillary programming. In addition to post-show conversations following performances, they will be hosting Social Action Happy Hours before Thursday and Friday performance to support organizations defending immigrants and refugees, including HIAS PA and The New Sanctuary Movement, and Sunday speakers including 2017 James Beard Award Winner Chef Daniel Rose. They will also offer open-captioned performances in both English and Spanish.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
How to Use a Knife plays through June 18, 2017 at InterAct Theatre Company, performing at The Drake – 302 South Hicks Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 568-8079, or purchase them online.