Welcome to the working man’s United Nations. Guatemalan line cooks, East African dishwashers, white American busboys – this is the bustling kitchen of a middling New York financial district restaurant. In Capital Stage’s world premiere of Will Snider’s “How To Use A Knife,” the back of the house setting contains this contemporary international mix of cultures and ethnicities who co-exist out of necessity. The work can be tense and pressure-packed as the employees count on each other to maintain the precise timing of getting hot meals out to waiting customers.
Snider’s detailed play, which receives a smart, affecting production here, has much more on its agenda, though, than simply portraying an ingratiating slice of modern life. The work smoothly morphs from boisterous comedy to tense character drama through taut, believable narrative twists and outstanding performances across the ensemble.
The play blasts open with the bombastic energy of Kirk Blackinton’s Michael, the blustery owner of the restaurant, as he introduces the new chef to the kitchen staff. Michael comes on like the star of his own show even though his audience is just the two amused Guatemalan line cooks (he calls them Mexicans) and a silent African dishwasher. The new chef, Michael’s old friend George, takes everything in calm, understated stride at first, but the big man makes it known he wants the kitchen run in a certain way. Michael operates the kitchen like a boot camp and he’s the drill sergeant. The fine Harry Harris has a powerful turn here as a haunted, tightly wound, complicated man in Chef George. His layers are revealed in stages and the performance deepens with each disclosure.
The two cooks, Eduardo A. Esqueda’s Miguel and Willem Long’s Carlos, are outwardly jokey and casual, but they miss nothing. Both are outstanding, and their nuanced performances show us men used to being taken for granted or ignored as they go about their essential work. They are nearly a Greek chorus with their ongoing Spanish background commentary. Michael treats them like pets, but Chef George understands their value, which means interacting with them in the same rough way he treats most everyone else. George has definite thorns and teaches the naive busboy Jack (Cole Winslow) a tough-love lesson. He’s also willing to show the kid how to make it in the restaurant’s highly disciplined atmosphere.
George develops a surprising friendship with Steve, the quiet dishwasher, when the men recognize similarities in each other and connect in a simple but meaningful way. Their relationship becomes the fulcrum of the play’s darkening mood and content in its second half. Locally based and nationally known Adrian Roberts provides Steve with a steely understated counterpoint to Harris’ demonstrative Chef George. Roberts is a marvel of economy and precision in the shadowy role.
The men each have secrets in their past. George’s slowly bubble to the surface while Steve’s past will be yanked into the present with traumatic consequences. Kelley Ogden’s determined government agent spikes the plot and spooks the immigrant-filled kitchen. While director Michael Stevenson’s ensemble blazes through the dense early sections of the episodic play, he refocuses the energy into more intimate dynamics as the narrative unfolds.
Snider resists impulses to put too fine a point on his ending, yet the finale satisfies with weary optimism.
How to Use a Knife
What: Capital Stage presents the National New Play Network rolling world premiere of Will Snider’s play, directed by Michael Stevenson. With Adrian Roberts, Harry Harris, Kirk Blackinton and Kelley Ogden.
Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 2
Tickets: $23-$45. Student rush half price with ID available one hour before performance; senior tickets $5 off. Military personnel $10 off. For previews, tickets cost $22. For the Sept. 3 opening night and reception starting at 8 p.m., tickets cost $35-$45.
Information: 916-995-5464; capstage.org
Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission