Despite a load of early laughs, there’s something not quite right about “How to Use a Knife,” Will Snider’s clattering comedy whose weekend opening launched Mixed Blood Theatre’s 41st season. At its heart is a question: How well can you really know your neighbors, whether they’re next door or at the next workstation?
But this one-act play, funny as it often is, lacks investigative vigor. “Knife” begins as a comedy before turning dramatic. But it doesn’t do the necessary character development work to make the laughs meaningful. The play, which is torn about whose story it wants to tell, also has a false ending.
“Knife,” which premiered last year at Sacramento’s Capital Stage Company, revolves around two seemingly opposite characters who have more in common than you’d expect.
George (Zach Myers), a white chef who is a recovering alcoholic, has been hired to run a Wall Street eatery. George, who has the edge of someone who’s served hard time, is used to heading up fancier places, but, hey, after hitting rock bottom, a burger joint looks like up. His staff includes Steve (Ansa Akyea), a taciturn black dishwasher from Uganda who is concealing secrets about the Rwandan genocide. When a federal immigration agent (Taous Khazem) comes asking after a potential war criminal, things boil over.
Give Snider credit. He has found a setting that can serve as a handy metaphor for the nation’s cultural stew, with a cast that includes two Guatemalan line cooks (Raul Ramos and Jake Caceres), a white restaurant owner (Michael Booth) and a young busboy (Maxwell Collyard). And the scenario calls for a single set, which makes it easier (read: cheaper) for more theaters to stage the play. (Joseph Stanley designed the realistic stuffed-to-the-gills kitchen here.)
Also give director Jesca Prudencio her due. She keeps the action moving at a comic clip, delighting us with broad humor as smart, multilingual characters play dumb.
But Steve comes off more as a plot device, or an ethnic representative, than a fully fleshed-out character. Ditto Khazem’s character, the only female onstage. This is no knock on the actors. Akyea brings an air of mystery and a stern mien to his African immigrant. He can be charming, or he can cut. Khazem also projects strength in the male-dominated setting.
The rest of the cast does commendable work — Myers’ menace is palpable, while Booth is breezy as an entrepreneur who isn’t as charming as he thinks he is. And Ramos and Caceres find comic gold in their underestimated Guatemalans.
All of which makes this “Knife” entertaining, but not as sharp as it could have been.