Mixed Blood Theatre tells a sharp tale of a kitchen crew

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Rich Ryan

Why aren’t more plays set in restaurant kitchens? It’s a perfect setting for contained drama. You have a diverse group of characters working together under incredible stress, with constant excuses for visitors to come popping in through a swinging door. There’s plenty of stage business, ready access to booze, and ominous cutlery if it comes to that.

How to Use a Knife

Mixed Blood Theatre
Free on a first come, first served basis ($25 guaranteed reservations)

Despite the cheerfully satirical tone of the early scenes in How to Use a Knife, it’s hard not to look at the eponymous implement and suspect that someone’s going to be facing its business end before the 90-minute play is done. There’s certainly no shortage of grievances in the close quarters of a kitchen supplying basic burgers to the customers of what we infer is a pretentious and overpriced—hence, wildly profitable—restaurant in New York City.

Set designer Joseph Stanley has built a realistically weathered kitchen on stage at Mixed Blood Theatre, where director Jesca Prudencio leads a strong new production of Will Snider’s 2016 play. A pair of Guatemalan cooks (Raúl Ramos and Jake Caceres) have chatty domain over stage right, while an African immigrant dishwasher, Steve (Ansa Akyea), works with silent efficiency at stage left. A bumbling and resentful white kid (Maxwell Collyard) is the food runner who awkwardly tries to keep up with the cooks’ banter.

Lording over all of them is the owner, Michael (Michael Booth), who reeks of unembarrassed privilege. He introduces the kitchen staff to the newly hired chef George (Zack Myers), a former mentor who’s come down in the world after a bout with substance abuse. George sets out to whip the rowdy kitchen into shape, and maybe even class the place up a little.

Myers is a remarkable physical presence at the center of How to Use a Knife: at first glowering and mysterious, later voluble and domineering. We start to learn more about him as he opens up in after-hours conversations with the dishwasher. Steve turns out to be a dignified foil to his noisy co-workers, but the cooks remain cool to him for reasons that George starts to suspect might not be merely petty.

Snider’s script is a marvel of efficiency, building a highly specific world and pulling us into a plot that becomes a dark thriller with chilling revelations about everything that’s happened to bring these extraordinary characters together in a very ordinary restaurant setting. Prudencio keeps the pace taut, and the witty, rapid-fire dialogue sometimes has the flavor of a grease-stained Gilmore Girls.

The overarching theme is that there’s an inherent violence in the kind of willful ignorance that’s most ostentatiously displayed by the restaurant’s owner, but that other characters can exhibit as well. As Michael puts it in a line of dialogue that could be the play’s thesis, “What we don’t know about the world, it could fill up 10 other fucking worlds.”

How to Use a Knife
Mixed Blood Theatre
1501 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis
612-338-6131; through October 15


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