Many of the productions at the UCSD Theatre & Dance: 2016 Wagner New Play Festival tackle serious subject matter, including extremism, numerous one-night stands and horrific imagery on the Internet. Like the other selections, the comic drama, How to Use a Knife brings up heavy issues.
Writer, Will Snider’s, plot takes place entirely in a Manhattan high-end restaurant’s kitchen. George (Volen Iliev) is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who treats his workers as though he were an army drill instructor.
After starting a casual conversation with a quiet East African dishwasher, Steve (Yonatan Gebeyehu), the two of them become fast friends. George first thinks his new buddy is an average man, but eventually learns that he was a soldier involved with the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide.
For about half of its 95 minute running time, Snider’s script is a “Hell’s Kitchen-esque” comedy with George acting like Gordon Ramsay’s long lost brother. George curses almost anytime he can and uses discipline to ensure the cook’s room is running smoothly.
Making his behavior entertaining to watch is Iliev who allows the character to be quietly stoic one second and furiously angry the next.
From a technical standpoint, director, Jesca Prudencio, does a bang-up job of having audience members feel like they are in an actual kitchen. It does not take long at the Mandell Weiss Forum to get hungry after smelling food scents off of the grill.
Junior Bergman’s costumes and Matthew Herman’s set strengthen the culinary visuals. None of the workers look out of place and Herman’s swinging door is a nice touch.
Hinting at serious sequences are scene changes that incorporate Chao-Yu Tsai’s lighting and Grady Kestler’s audio. There is something intentionally uncomfortable about the ominous dark colors and a heartbeat like sound in the background.
As mentioned before, things do become more serious once Steve starts sharing information about his private life. Some might feel that Steve starts out as a stereotypical supporting character used to help humanize George and his inner demons. That would be prejudging him, because Steve turns out to be far from a simple person.
Gebeyehu’s calm portrayal of the soft-spoken employee is all the more affecting because of his generally peaceful presence.
There are heavy and depressing conversations that follow, involving death, self-destructive behavior and war. These discussions give theatregoers a lot to think about, and also humanize the two men.
A downside of How to Use a Knife is that the major shift in tone comes across as jarring. Snider’s writing starts with lowbrow comedy, cheerfully profane dialogue and poop jokes.
It’s not that the frequent funny relief falls flat. In fact, Iliev, Gebeyehu, Scott Duncan, Gabriel Cruz and Carlos Angel-Barajas make the most of the comedic moments. The problem is that the change in mood happens rapidly.
How to Use a Knife will receive a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere in the 2016-17 season. If Snider revises the narrative, he could tone down a few of the quips.
An easy way to help do this is to lessen the role of restaurant owner, Michael (Michael Koorstad). He acts like a casually racist and sexist boor who thinks he is the most humorous person on the planet. At first, Michael seems to be a crucial part of the evening, but the role ends up adding very little to the plot.
Not much needs to be changed for the second half, since the situations become drastically tenser. George and Steve become so multilayered, that it’s really sad to see them experience serious conflicts.
There is no easy way to wrap up a plot like the one in How to Use a Knife. Luckily, Snider has a resolution that first seems slight, but becomes more impactful upon reflection. George and Steve’s fates not only make sense from a dramatic standpoint, but also feel true to life.
Although the first half might be a little too jokey, Snider has developed a bittersweet tale that becomes significantly deeper with each passing scene. Hopefully, others feel the same when How to Use a Knife is produced around the United States.