Photo by Kate Raines

Plotz is a clown. With a degree. 

Jane is a director and new-play dramaturg. 

Plotz

I know you’re, like rearing to go.

 

Jane

I am. But we need to empty our pockets first.

 

Plotz

I had a close friend on the design team. And I am passionate about the NNPN rolling premieres program. I think it is really vital to supporting new plays.

 

Jane

I don’t know anyone personally at InterAct but I’m invested in it as a place. I think it’s consistently the most inclusive established theater, and it does the most new plays. And it makes a place for Ghostlight project and really commits to the goals of that project.

 

Plotz

And it hosted our Awards.

 

Jane

That’s right. It hosted the Bonaly Awards. I think the fact that InterAct has it’s heart and intentions in the right place and takes things like inclusivity seriously means that it’s so much more disappointing when it fails.

 

Plotz

Like Straight White Men.

 

Jane

Yeah, I guess Straight White Men is in my pockets, too. That production really upset me.

 

Plotz

I know we usually start by talking about design, but I think that it’ll make more sense if we talk about the script, first. I think we agree that this script is upsetting. 

 

Jane

Completely. For a number of reasons. To me, this play exemplifies why non white, non male voices need to be given the opportunity to tell their own stories. Because when someone else speaks for us, this is what happens. In many ways How To Use A Knife is a pile of the standard components of white-guy plays. A sadsack tragic hero who says fuck a lot. Women and people of color as props in that guy’s life.

 

Plotz

Fast talking mametesque dialogue so the comedy is in the aggression and speed and not what people are saying. That’s not a style I love. It sidesteps all other truth for the one truth that being mean fast is kind of funny. 

 

Jane

Ugh. Yes. Both the structure and the content of this play are as boring as they are obnoxious.

 

Plotz

Do you want to take that apart? What bothers you about the structure?

 

Jane

Well, like you, I hate that aggression-as-comedy thing. Especially when it’s the same old boring string of misogynist insults. Your sister is hot. I want to fuck your sister. Women don’t want to fuck you. Etc. And to be clear, Knife does not explore the toxic masculinity that is behind this kind of banter, or what pushes characters to speak that way, or what effects it has on them. It’s just ha-ha he said “fuck.”

 

Plotz

I think what’s particularly unlikable about this script though, is that it feels like version 2.0 of that. Like the writer had a feminist girlfriend and she worked on him and now he’s enlightened so no one says faggot or cunt. You know, it’s within contemporary standards of inappropriate. LaBute Lite.

 

Jane

Right and the main character says “I hate white people,” which I assume is also meant to signal that this white guy writer knows that he’s a white guy. And Steve says “why would you assume that I have a goat, that’s racist?” That kind of thing. 

 

Plotz

And they’re Guatemalan, not Mexican. This whole play is someone’s first year in college. I know the difference between Rwanda and Uganda, give me a cookie. It’s very proud of how not racist and sexist it is. But this is content.

 

Jane

Right. Structure. I mean, I feel that I just have to say that this play is not about anything. It doesn’t offer a clear theme. The characters- even the one who is sort of human- do not have arcs. There is constant reference to big ideas (race, violence, equality of opportunity, the American Dream, guilt) but the play has nothing comprehensive to say about any of them. For a play with no new idea to offer, it’s very self important.

 

Plotz

I don’t think we can wait any longer to talk about the characters. First, the Guatemalans.

 

Jane

They are literally talking props! What do they want, do, contribute, shed light on? What?! They just sit there making those three burgers over and over again.

 

Plotz

Well, we do find out that Miguel has kids and can’t afford to be deported.

 

Jane

It’s so thin. And Miguel has no agency. He doesn’t make choices. He doesn’t feel feelings. Carlos mostly gets to sit around being persecuted by racists, but his only true action is implied and off stage. And feels unmotivated. What he does is a plot point, not the motivated action of a human person. And then “Steve.”

 

Plotz

Ha ha. His name is “Steve.” Get it? It’s funny because it’s an American name.

 

Jane

Steve the Magical Negro.

 

Plotz

That’s a pretty serious thing to say. You want to back that up?

 

Jane

I’m happy to. I think this character meets all the requirements of a magical negro. 1. He’s at a social disadvantage- he’s just a lowly dishwasher. 2. He appears to help the white protagonist. Certainly this is George’s play. George is the anti hero. And his rage is consuming him. Here’s the mysterious silent black man to help him. And Steve’s so happy to have a friend. George is his “first friend” they are “brothers.” Why? What is George offering?

 

Plotz

He’s teaching him to cook.

 

Jane

Yes. They are truly brothers. Lucky Steve.

And finally, he’s magical. He gives George a standard meditation practice.

 

Plotz

The fastest acting meditation I’ve ever seen!

 

Jane

Yes, amazing, and he only has to do it for a few seconds and he’s transformed.

 

Plotz

We are just being petty now.

 

Jane

True.

 

Plotz

Then he says Steve is an “African Ninja.”

 

Jane

African Ninja, Magical Negro. Six of one, half dozen of the other. But George is a good white person, because he cares about the difference between West Africa and Uganda. Not like Michael, who seems to exist in the play only to show that the playwright knows what a *bad* white person looks like. “Ha ha. Those white people.”

Just like his character, the playwright thinks he can walk up to poc, put an arm around them and say “I hate white people.” Meanwhile he’s doing exactly exactly the shitty thing that white people do, which is to think that we can speak for poc, all while patting ourselves on the back for ennobling them.

 

Plotz

Don’t hold back now.

 

Jane

Well it makes me really mad. This play is actually an amazing opportunity. A kitchen is a fraught place where race, masculinity, exhaustion and alcoholism collide. To actually explore those things could be amazing. Instead, he makes it about the white guy, and draws everyone else even more thinly than the main character whom he clearly expects us to identify and sympathize with.

 

Plotz

I want to add that the female character is similarly one dimensional.

 

Jane

But she’s so “strong.”

 

Plotz

Yep. Pretty strong. When she gets harassed in a room full of men she says “please stop sexually harassing me.”

 

Jane

Pretty true to my experience.

 

Plotz

I mean. Come on.

I guess I should be grateful that her three scenes were in there. Do you want to say anything else about this script?

 

Jane

Yeah, but I’m not sure how to put it. I feel that the play has a lot of emotional indicators, but not a lot of emotional content.

 

Plotz

What do you mean?

 

Jane

I mean that people talk about things that should make you feel feelings- like grotesque violence or terrible accidents, or a wife and children at home. But the characters themselves do not feel feelings. I’m particularly thinking about what amounts to a trauma-porn dick measuring contest that George and Steve have where they both describe things that are terrible and the more terrible story wins.

 

Plotz

Shout out to descriptions of rape of their women as an excuse for men’s violence! Always good to have those.

 

Jane

Yes, please surprise me with descriptions of rape! I mean, actually, I’d be willing to take it if I thought it meant anything to the characters. But both of the main characters are by design not able to feel (unless “drunk” counts as a feeling) and the other characters are too one-dimensional to feel. That makes everything that happens pretty low stakes. Why should I care that this friendship falls apart or is betrayed? Saying “we are brothers” does not create stakes for the relationship if nothing human happens to them. What kind of friendship was it, anyway? No one changed or learned anything or reflected on anything. No one felt an emotional attachment to the other.

 

Plotz

There is actually a line where the busboy character…

 

Jane

The writer.

 

Plotz

Of course.

 

Jane

Note to writers. Stop writing about writers. Your thinly veiled self glorification is too thin and not enough veil. But you were saying?

 

Plotz

Jack, he says “I want to right about something real and true, not bullshit like families or girlfriends. Something real.”

 

Jane

Oh god, you’re right!

 

Plotz

So I assume this is Will Snider making sure we get the point that he isn’t wasting time with wishy-washy human connection and girly shit that nobody cares about. This play is about Important Ideas.

 

Jane

This script makes me so angry in so many ways. But the biggest way is that it has no idea how un-self aware it is.

 

Plotz

That’s what ‘self aware’ means.

 

Jane

You know what I mean. It’s bad enough when LaBute or Mamet or somebody just ignores any experience other than his own. But this guy is breaking his arm patting himself on the back about how inclusive and enlightened he is, and that makes it so much worse.

I wish I could see this play written by someone who has been Carlos. Or who has been Etienne. But if you’re fucking Jack the busboy, be Jack the busboy. Bring us into the world of toxic masculinity. Talk about how hierarchy is shitty and hurtful (or fucking transformative if that’s what you think. Educate me. I’ve never been in an all-male environment.) If you’re intimidated by Spanish speakers, figure that out. If someone being attracted to  your sister is an insult to you, figure out why. First, look at your own life and see what it does to you, reflect on it, then share your own experience. Quit cramming your Big Ideas into other people’s mouths.

 

Plotz

That’s the thing though. That’s what the play does. It uses, for example the Rwandan Genocide as a romantic way to reflect on white guy problems. Or fear of the INS. Everything is not yours.

 

Jane

Everything is not yours. And thinking it is makes you the opposite of who you think you are.

 

Plotz

Can we talk about this production now?

 

Jane

I think so.

 

Plotz

I want to talk about these actors. They were amazing. It made me embarrassed for them. They were so above what they had to do.

 

Jane

I agree. Lindsay Smiling is so talented. And he carried that role with depth and dignity that it did not have.

 

Plotz

Smiling made excellent use of his body to tell a story that wasn’t in the words. He was masterful with small movements.

 

Jane

I also think that J Hernandez did an amazing job of transcending the material. What he had was even harder to deal with. His arc was so thin, and he played the role with so much nuance. I found him the only character that I could actually emotionally connect with. I don’t know how he pulled depth, and the levels out of that, but he really did.

 

Plotz

Well and they were just trapped over there with, as you said, the same three burgers to make. He had to keep testing the stock during what was supposed to be a rush. There just was not enough business for them to keep busy. But both Hernandez and Angel Sigala were able to keep moving and give an impression of motivated action. Those actors also used movement well to beef up their relationship and make their world more real.

 

Jered McLenigan did exactly what his role required. I think that shows professionalism. He did his best to keep Michael out of vaudeville territory.

 

Jane

I would say the same about Trevor William Fayle and Maria Konstantindis. Terrible parts, strong actors. What did you think about Scott Greer?

 

Plotz

I think that he is a fantastic actor, and that this part was like chewing spent gum. There was just nothing to hold onto. And while the actors in smaller parts worked to wrest something human out of cardboard cutouts, he was left with the challenge of staying compelling with a very boring character for an hour and a half. I think he achieved that.

 

Jane

I agree. I don’t see how he could have done it better.

 

Plotz

I also want to shout out to Natalia de la Torre’s costumes.

 

Jane

She’s great.

 

Plotz

The detail of George’s worn uniform, open at the throat and that big Navy peacoat told his story immediately. De la Torre’s work is so understated. She has a deft hand for telling a story and not letting on that she’s telling the story. I love how Kim’s costumes got slightly less businesslike every time she appeared. There was no character arc for her in the play, but de la Torre snuck in a story about the toll the case might be taking on her, how it might be affecting her life outside this kitchen.

 

Jane

Stage management was on point. Those transitions were beautifully quick. And well directed, too. The pace was incredible. Seth Rozin did a great job of keeping it moving. And the kitchen didn’t offer much in terms of varying the blocking, but I never got bored. Can we talk about the set yet?

 

Plotz

First let me say that Robin Stamey built a great moment with those after-hours lights. The swinging lamp over the knife sharpener was really strong.

 

And I didn’t put this in my pockets, but I should have. I really, really hate hyper realistic sets.

 

Jane

Why?

 

Plotz

Because they invite you to look for mistakes. In cinema, that doesn’t happen, the realistic set just fades into the background as the camera directs your eye. But in theater, as soon as you’ve tried to approximate reality on stage, you’re begging the audience to look for places where it “doesn’t look real.”

 

Jane

That definitely happened. I was thinking that there wasn’t enough water in the mop bucket, I was distracted by the lack of sound and steam in the kitchen.

 

Plotz

And GLOVES. Oh my god, most unhygienic kitchen ever. So much hair touching then food touching.

 

Jane

I see what you mean. I would care about that less if the other details weren’t so realistic.

 

Plotz

The seams in the brickwork, how little stuff was in the kitchen. It becomes very distracting. Whereas if you suggest a kitchen, you give the imagination permission to fill in the gaps, and then it does.

 

Jane

I see.

 

Plotz

It’s just not theatrical. It’s cinematic. And it will never be cinematic enough.

 

Jane

I was distracted by tallying up how much each thing would cost. Half my brain was in Home Depot and then writing grants.

 

Plotz

That might be specific to you.

 

Jane

I concede that.

 

But it does bring me back to my larger issue, and I’m reluctant to say this because I really do believe in InterAct. It supports so many young artists. It’s relationship with NNPN makes sure that so many new plays get developed and seen. And Seth Rozin as an artistic director makes space for feedback and commentary. I feel that he keeps his door pretty open, especially compared to other artistic directors in the city.

 

Plotz

But…

 

Jane

But it also makes a lot of this kind of misstep. The same misstep the play makes. Doing something that it feels is inclusive and important, but is actually the opposite. Straight White Men was that, Three Christs of Manhattan was that. This was that. For a theater that is dedicated to inclusivity, I don’t think it goes deep enough when choosing the work. I don’t know what kind of process is happening when the work gets chosen.

 

Plotz

I have heard (secondhand) that they try to get diverse people on their reading committee, so…

 

Jane

So that’s good. But how does this stuff get by?

 

Plotz

Well they did also have Grounded and You for Me AND Marcus and Emma this year. So that’s two women directors and one director of color.

 

Jane

You’re right. But can we agree that How to Use a Knife isn’t the best use of resources when you’re trying to amplify diverse voices? This play used a lot of resources. And for what? 

 

Plotz

I don’t know. I don’t like the script, but it did give work to a number of poc.

 

Jane

And a lady.

 

Plotz

It’s complicated. I’d rather have this than that busboy play you were talking about.

 

Jane

I’d rather have neither. I’d rather have Carlos’ play. Or Etienne’s. Or Miguel’s.

 

Plotz

Can we say that we’re getting there?

 

Jane

I hope so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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