The terrific new “How to Use a Knife” comes at you like a play on speed, or maybe a play with no speed limit. What’s more, the play meets a perfect match in its seamless production from InterAct Theatre Company. Its characters establish themselves instantly, as if the 100-minute one-act would otherwise be squandering time on its set, the modest kitchen of a Wall Street restaurant.
There’s the restaurant owner (Jered McLenigan), a yattering overlord whose involvement with himself is non-stop – he owns the first few minutes of the play, and McLenigan portrays him with the force of a reckless man on uppers. The two Latino cooks — played with snap-happy sass by J Hernandez and Angel Sigala — sling the food out constantly. The white, college-educated kid (Trevor William Fayle) who cleans tables and dispatches food is a busboy — and also everyone’s whipping boy. And that silent black man at the sink? He’s the dishwasher. No one seems to know his name.
He’s played with such quiet fortitude by the actor Lindsay Smiling, you begin to wonder how he could be in this kitchen, let alone this play. It takes a special sort of guy to open him up, someone whose anger and loss he can relate to — and that’s the new chef the restaurateur brings in. The veteran Philadelphia actor Scott Greer plays him just as he’s written by playwright Will Snider — tempestuous, given to outrageously nasty fits, but with the marks of a bully in constant fear of retribution. Smiling and Greer — whose characters eventually become arms-length friends — give performances so solidly in the moment, you’ll wonder whether they had a script for all this.
One other character comes into the plot — an investigator from immigration, played no-nonsense by Maria Konstantinidis. But hold on, “How to Use a Knife” is not an exploration of the round-’em-up and send-’em-back mentality — it’s better than that. Each of these men, the chef and the dishwasher, has demons. The play is a tough consideration of friendship, of what happens when you think that my demons are far worse than yours.
That’s a lot of weight for a play whose entire setting is a restaurant kitchen (Colin McIlvaine’s bulls-eye scenic design). But “How to Use a Knife” carries it so well — and comes off so realistically under the direction of InterAct chief Seth Rozin — there’s never a moment’s question that Snider’s plot is leading us to something fulfilling. Snider, a Washington, D.C., native who studied African history at Columbia and spent time working in agricultural development in East Africa, uses that background here; the play takes on an intriguing international dynamic as it moves forward.
If it seems as though I stop short of revealing much of the plot, I do — you have the right to be as surprised as I was by the drama, which has a nice light side as well. It’s being presented in what’s called a “rolling world premiere” — a project of the National New Play Network, which nurtures new work. That means it’s done by several stage companies, each with its own production, as a series of world premieres.
InterAct is a major player in the National New Play Network — producing artistic director Rozin has twice chaired its board. Philadelphia-based playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger is among the 11 playwrights whose work is currently rolling out in these premieres. Her play “The Arsonists” recently ran here at Azuka Theatre, and moves onto productions at three other theaters.
In the case of “How to Use a Knife,” four theaters are producing it. InterAct is the fourth, after stages in Sacramento, Indianapolis and Kansas City. This may be the end of the play’s premiere rollout, but I’ll bet it’s the beginning of a substantial production history around the country.
—“How to Use a Knife,” produced by InterAct Theatre Company, runs through June 18 at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, on Spruce Street between 15th and 16th Streets. 215-568-8079 or interacttheatre.org.