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Theatre in Review: The Hot Wing King (Signature Theatre)/I Am Nobody (The Tank)

Top: Toussaint Jeanlouis and Nicco Annan. Photo: Monique Carboni. Bottom: Sarah Coffey. Photo: Skye Morse-Hodgeson.

The plays of Katori Hall usually have some novelty value, and The Hot Wing King is no exception. This time around, she focuses on a circle of black gay male friends living in Memphis, a decision that is more radical than it first looks. Although the last year or so has seen a breakthrough of black-themed gay plays -- including, but not limited to, Sugar in Our Wounds, "Daddy," One in Two, and A Strange Loop -- The Hot Wing King is a naturalistic comedy-drama about romantic and familial relationships. The plays mentioned above frame their characters in stark, often life-or-death terms; in contrast, Hall's characters know who they are and, by and large, are accepting of themselves. They are churchgoing members of the middle class, living productive, unexceptional lives.

If a genre piece about an under-covered segment of the gay community is an appealing concept, it is not without risks, especially in terms of creating conflict. The play's title refers to an annual Memphis competition to create the best new version of the ever-popular Southern delicacy of the title, in which a variety of ingredients are combined to turn ordinary chicken wings into gourmet treats. As we learn, this involves a lengthy period of marination -- a process in which the playwright indulges to a perhaps unwanted degree.

The crew -- known as the New Wing Order -- vying to win first prize is led by Cordell, a fortyish former FedEx executive who has recently left his wife and college-age sons, moving from St. Louis to Memphis to live with Dwayne, the manager of a big downtown hotel. They share a passionate attachment, yet little cracks appear almost immediately: Cordell resents Dwayne's demanding job; still looking for work after two months, he feels perilously close to becoming a kept man. It doesn't help that his divorce proceedings are stalled, and his boys refuse to speak to him. Dwayne comes with baggage of his own in the form of extended family problems: His sister died, under tragic circumstances, a couple of years earlier and his brother-in-law, TJ, and nephew, EJ, come and go, sowing chaos. The boy and his father are technically homeless, bouncing from couch to couch; TJ is usually involved in one illegality or another and EJ has recently taken up small-time thieving, as well. The obvious thing would be for Dwayne to take in EJ -- a bright kid of sixteen -- keeping him stable until it is time for college. But this is a notion to which Cordell is thoroughly opposed.

There's plenty of drama percolating under the surface, but Hall puts things on a low simmer throughout the long first act, doling out exposition at her leisure and letting the characters while away the time, talking trash and mulling over gustatorial fine points. Even when she finally turns up the heat, it seems pretty obvious that nothing will prevent her from smoothly guiding her characters toward a happy ending. In a play that mulls over the details of blueberry versus parmesan versus bourbon-infused seasoning, is laced with wisecracks about the likes of Destiny's Child, and features a running gag in which unsuspecting souls repeatedly tuck into wings spiced to five-alarm levels, what are the chances that something really surprising is going to happen? This is also one of those plays where the heterosexual character slips, accidentally revealing his anti-gay biases, only to get what-for from the most effeminate character. And when it comes to making a man of EJ, we are told, "It takes a village."

None of this is unpleasant, and Hall gets points for drawing a credibly loving and troubled love affair for Cordell and Dwayne. But, to put it in culinary terms, she could have hit the spice rack a little more. Simply transposing standard tropes from gay plays and planting them in an all-black milieu doesn't result in anything remarkably fresh, and certainly not anything particularly flavorful.

If the director, Steve H. Broadnax III, could have done more to emphasize the characters' underlying tensions, at least he has assembled a skilled and attractive cast. Toussaint Jeanlouis and Korey Jackson share strong chemistry as Cordell and Dwayne; Jeanlouis makes the most of Cordell's dawning realization that he is stuck between his past life and present opportunities. Cecil Blutcher's EJ is an edgily energetic package of potential trouble, especially in a powerful bit when he erupts in anger against the adults in his life. Sheldon Best, unrecognizable from Sugar in Our Wounds, is solid enough as that must-have accoutrement in plays like this, the outrageous, sassy queen; too bad that Hall hasn't given him anything particularly amusing to say. Nicco Annan is affable as Big Charles, the barber who brought Cordell and Dwayne together. The role of TJ is a cliché -- the initially threatening straight guy who gets shown up by the gays -- but Eric B. Robinson, Jr., gives him some dimension anyway.

But, really, nothing happens in The Hot Wing King that can't be predicted a scene or two in advance. It may very well prove popular with theatre companies looking for a gay-themed play that presents positive images of black men. I guess it will do until something better comes along.

The characters of I Am Nobody would probably be horrified at the wholesale deployment of chicken wings for anything so frivolous as a contest, so concerned are they with sustainability. The new show at The Tank is a musical spoof of the torments of modernity and the fate of the planet. Admittedly, these subjects aren't instant laugh riots, but the author, Greg Kotis, constructs a bizarre, anything-for-a-laugh scenario that constantly flirts with incoherence while trying to peddle the idea that we should all be more ecologically minded. It's hard to take issue with this position, but in this case, it's easy to dismiss the messenger.

Lucas and Nathanial are workers at Franklin Technology, a manufacturer of silicon microchips for cellphones. They spend most of their day in the "clean room," dressed in hazmat suits, being yelled at by their unctuous, overwrought boss, Mr. Charles. (They also sing their corporate anthem, which sounds rather like a slightly inverted version of The Internationale: "We serve the future conscientiously!/We venture forward unpretentiously!") One night, after a couple of beers and a song by a depressive folk-singing waitress named Naomi, Lucas has an epiphany that it is his mission to destroy modernity, thereby liberating humanity from their digital screens. Stealing a bunch of microchips from the workplace, he creates a giant worm designed to bring the connected world to a halt.

Instead of calling the FBI, Mr. Charles sends Nathanial racing across the country after Lucas, who is planning on holing up in a cave in the Mojave Desert. Coming along for the ride is Naomi, who makes impulsive decisions on the advice of inner voices she calls her "toddlers," and who may also be a homicidal maniac. (She is in love with Lucas -- or, at least, his intentions -- a fact that drives Nathanial crazy.) There is a lengthy stay on the farm where Naomi grew up, during which her mother, Miriam ---an unreconstructed Ma Joad figure -- falls for Nathanial and his skills as a tiller, hoping to enlist him as Naomi's future husband. There is much talk about prophecies and a weird, ad hoc philosophy developed by Lucas, who runs around the desert dressed like a Biblical prophet. Miriam and Nathanial also sing an upbeat number about living off "the fudge of the land." At one point, the audience is pelted with barley grains.

Some years ago, Kotis had a Broadway success with Urinetown, a spoof of the Brecht-and-Weill musical dramas (with jazz-hands jibes thrown in) focusing on a city struggling with catastrophic drought. If Urinetown, which was written with Mark Hollman, had the virtue of novelty -- this was before every Broadway musical had to have a number that satirizes Broadway musicals -- it is now nearly two decades later, and the thrill is gone. The parade of non sequiturs, the gritted-teeth bad-acting style lifted from B Hollywood potboilers of the 1950s, the songs that parody other musical styles, and the thick atmosphere of facetiousness no longer pack the same punch. In its anything-for-a-laugh approach, it forgets to say anything about the subject at hand.

If Meghan Finn's production is pretty rough, it is probably because the show makes more demands than can be met in the tiny space of the Tank. The set, by Christopher and Justin Swader -- a pair of walls covered with window screens that serve as surfaces for very good projections of city streets, farmland, deserts, and other locations, by David Pym -- works all right. But the lighting, by Anthony Dean, is frankly baffling, being more focused on creating effects than illuminating the actors. And Pym's sound design is strangely ineffective, especially given that some of the principals have enormous mics taped to their cheeks, like unsettling growths.

It's hard to know what to say about the cast, since everyone has adopted the overemoting technique that seems to come with all of Kotis' plays. Among them, Emilio Cuesta, as Nathanial, brings some conviction to his role, retaining a sense of innocence, while everyone else hams it up in search of easy laughs. I Am Nobody touches on some of the most important issues facing us, burying them in a blaze of self-regarding silliness. It the most unfortunate thing I have seen in some time. -- David Barbour

(9 March 2020)

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