Katori Hall has written two new plays, a comedy and a drama, and put them under one title. Even the direction, by Steve H. Broadnax III, and the scenic design, by Michael Carnahan, put that bifurcation in sharp focus in the Signature Theatre’s production of “The Hot Wing King.” Hall’s play opened Sunday at Off Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center.
The raucous comedy plays out center stage in the kitchen and living room, while the domestic drama is relegated to the far sides of the stage where a same-sex couple bickers in a bedroom (stage left) and a backyard (stage right). Anyone versed in Gay Theater 101 has seen both these plays before. Fortunately, the more easily digestible half takes place center stage in the kitchen.
Memphis, Tennessee, is once again gearing up for another food contest. Cordell (Toussaint Jeanlouis) hopes his chicken wings will win him first place. Being unemployed, he has all the time in the world to cook. And living with a prosperous lover, Dwayne (Korey Jackson), he can indulge his hobby without obsessing too much over the prize money. But Cordell has his pride — and his problems.
Playwrights love putting cooking scenes in their plays. Jez Butterworth’s “The River” and Theresa Rebeck’s “Seared” are just two examples. These culinary scenes usually play out in silence as actors busy themselves preparing a meal. Hall takes a much noisier route. For reasons not explained, Cordell needs an army of sous chefs to prepare a very simple dish, chicken wings, and every ingredient is discussed as if he were the last drop of paint on a Pollock canvas. He tries to rule this roost, and that includes bossing around a barber friend (Nicco Annan), a troubled teenage nephew-in-law (Cecil Blutcher) and a screaming queen named Isom (Sheldon Best).
Cordell gives orders, but Isom runs this show. The comedy side of “The Hot Wing King” belongs to him, and like Emory in “The Boys in the Band” and Jason #2 in “The Inheritance,” Isom gets most of the best lines. Without question Isom also gets the best outfits (costumes by Emilio Sosa), and that translates into plenty of sparkle in Act 2 and plenty of bare midriff throughout. Spotting a macho man in the backyard, Isom screams, “We all know one outta three black men like that prostate tapped, MMMKAAYYYYY!”
Isom also says things that a dramaturg should have edited out before rehearsals, like, “I can smell shade a mile away — I’m a walking umbrella.” Regardless of whether Hall is writing on fire or automatic pilot, Best delivers every syllable of Isom’s one-liners with a finger snap, a hip twirl or a leg kick. Sometimes he manages all three at once.
The play’s most inspired moment finds Best not uttering a line, however. Stuck in the kitchen stirring Cordell’s special sauce, Isom jeopardizes the cook’s chicken wing dream. It’s a long drawn-out moment that should not be revealed here. Let’s just say that Best is equal to Buster Keaton in milking laughs through a series of silent stares.
Elsewhere, Broadnax directs the kitchen scenes as if “The Hot Wing King” were a musical. At one point, the men take time off from the stove to sing and dance. It’s difficult to tell if Hall lifted this chorus-line moment from “The Boys in the Band” or “Tina — the Tina Turner Musical,” for which she wrote the book.
Best is the major reason to see the comedy half of “The Hot Wing King.” It speaks to this play’s lopsidedness that his character has almost nothing to do with the drama side of “The Hot Wing King,” which proves that gay couples can be just as tiresome as straights. Cordell’s offstage wife won’t give him a divorce. His two sons, also unseen, think he has abandoned them. That guilt, for some reason, does not prevent this amateur chef from vehemently objecting to Dwayne’s young nephew, who has shown up to live with them. The barber Dwayne, on the other hand, shows all the adoptive paternal instincts of Arnold Beckoff from “Torch Song Trilogy.” Maybe that’s why Hall burdens these characters with Harvey Fierstein’s brand of schmaltz. As one of her characters explains it, “Daddies ain’t nothin’ but God’s babysitters….”
Jackson is very Mayor Pete in his portrayal, but with slightly more adventurous fashion sense. And Jeanlouis manages to make Cordell far more palatable than he is written. Fortunately, the nephew’s deadbeat dad (Eric B. Robinson Jr.) is no Mrs. Beckoff from “Torch Song Trilogy.” His homophobia doesn’t fuel the drama. It provides, in fact, one of Hall’s wryer “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” jokes. After mildly deriding the gay “lifestyle,” Robinson’s character walks off with Dwayne’s finest cashmere sweater.