Monday, March 9, 2020

180 (2019-2020): Review: THE HOT WING KING (seen March 8, 2020)

"A Game of Chicken"

Katori Hall’s The Hot Wing King, or as it’s pronounced in the script’s often impenetrable, Southern-accented argot, “The Hot Wang Kang,” is a moderately heartwarming, sometimes amusing, occasionally clichéd dramedy with sitcom overtones. Drifting from its central situation, in which five characters, four of them gay, prepare a hot chicken wings recipe, is the aroma of a black Boys in the Band.
Toussaint Jeanlouis, Korey Jackson. All photos: Monique Carboni.
Set in Memphis—the playwright’s home town—in the house shared by Cordell (Toussaint Jeanlouis) and Dwayne (Korey Jackson), who owns it, the play deals with issues of masculinity, gay love, friendship, teamwork, and single parenting as five of the six characters prepare 280 pounds of Cordell’s “Spicy. Cajun. Alfredo. With Bourbon Infused. Crumbled Bacon” recipe. Their hope is to win the $5,000 first prize in a local hot wings contest. 
Cecil Blutcher, Korey Jackson.
Only the comical irresponsibility of the naughty, zingermeister Isom (Sheldon Best), the conventionally flamboyant member of the team, threatens their success. Isom, who spices up the proceedings—let’s just say there’ll be a hot time in some old mouths tonight—is present with his partner, Big Charles (Nicco Annan). The latter is a barber at whose shop Cordell and Dwayne met five years earlier, and who’s more concerned with a TV football game than what’s being tackled in the kitchen, where the real tension is.
Korey Jackson, Toussaint Jeanlouis.
Like the recent Seared, this is another live cooking show, as Cordell’s team carries out his instructions in a realistic kitchen, using apparently real ingredients. Aside from the crowded kitchen, located upstage left in Michael Carnahan’s detailed set, we also see a raised bedroom, a living room, and an outside patio, replete with an offstage basketball hoop visible only to those seated on the audience’s left.
Sheldon Best.
The patio serves various outdoor purposes, related to both the cooking and playing ball (which is done well), but is also where the characters are forced to share their intimate conversations (when they’re not being eavesdropped on).
Nicco Annan, Korey Jackson, Toussant Jeanlouis.
Performed under Steve H. Broadnax III’s buoyant direction, with raucous energy (three men even do a routine to Luther Vandross’s “Never Too Much”), the play’s first part is preoccupied with introducing everyone during the lively preparations—jokes and bickering included—for making the hot wings marinade. Eventually, more serious personal matters intrude, forcing a tonal shift as we discover the tensions tying these folks together. Balancing sitcom business and darker issues is a precarious endeavor that the play doesn’t always master.
Nicco Annan, Toussaint Jeanlouis, Korey Jackson, Sheldon Best, Cecil Blutcher.
One important issue is the conflict between Cordell, currently unemployed, and Dwayne, a harried hotel manager, over when Cordell—who left his wife and kids in St. Louis—will be ready to inform his family of his sexuality. It’s not unlike the situation between Sol and Robert in the first season of TV’s “Grace and Frankie.”
Cecil Blutcher, Toussaint Jeanlouis.
Another is the concern of Dwayne about his troubled, 16-year-old nephew, Everett a.k.a. EJ (Cecil Blutcher). He’s the son of Dwayne’s sister, a mentally unstable woman killed by the police as her son watched, for which Dwayne somehow blames himself.
Toussaint Jeanlouis, Nicco Annan.
The boy’s father is TJ (Eric B. Robinson, Jr.), a drug hustler who, for all his faults, worries about being a good father to Everett, who prefers staying with Dwayne. When Dwayne offers his home to EJ, it creates a conflict with Cordell, who opposes the idea. The macho TJ, too, wrestles with it, worried that the men’s gayness will rub off on the boy.
Toussaint Jeanlouis, Korey Jackson, Eric B. Robertson, Nicco Annan, Sheldon Best.
Alan C. Edwards’s versatile lighting, nicely isolating the multiple locales; Emilio Sosa’s character-perfect costumes, including the team’s competition shirts; and Lugman Brown and Robert Kaplowitz’s spirited sound design of musical selections go far to making The Hot Wing King tasty, although not quite enough to sustain a two hour and 20 minute meal.
Eric B. Robertson, Jr., Korey Jackson.
Playwright Hall (Tina—The Tina Turner Musical) definitely knows the slang slung by these homies but many listeners—even those present when titles are projected for the hearing impaired—will find themselves depending more on the expressive acting than the words spoken to follow along closely. But those actors definitely make The Hot Wing King a sweet-tasting, if not particularly hot, concoction that many will enjoy.
Cecil Blutcher, Eric B. Robinson, Jr.
I’m not ready to hand The Hot Wing King first prize but that needn’t prevent anyone from taking a bite out of it to try it for themselves.

Pershing Square Signature Center/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 22