By Brian Scott Lipton
Saucy. Spicy. One hardly needs to be an experienced theater critic for these adjectives to pop into one’s head during the prolonged opening section of Katori Hall’s The Hot Wing King, now at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Indeed, such words will come naturally to many as they watch five gay men cavort, carouse, banter and bellow in a tasteful Memphis house (well designed by Michael Carnahan) while ostensibly preparing to compete in the city’s annual “Hot Wing” contest the following day.
The other word that popped into my critical head, however, was “surprising.” Hall (“The Mountaintop,” “Our Lady of Kibeho”) is usually a writer of substance, so I didn’t expect her to simply pen an extended sitcom. And Hall doesn’t disappoint. The play suddenly makes a sharp tonal turn, and while the laughs don’t completely disappear, much of the next two hours is devoted to a dramatic and stunningly realistic exploration of several different kinds of male relationships. Like a good hot wing, the play ends up having not just fire, but remarkable depth and flavor, all of which is brought out to perfection by an incredibly talented cast under Steve H. Broadnax III’s assured direction.
The show’s central pair are Dwayne (a thoroughly believable Corey Jackson), a fastidious and slightly uptight hotel manager, and his live-in boyfriend Cordell (a truly superb Toussaint Jeanlouis), who left his wife and grown sons in St. Louis to move to Memphis and be with Dwayne, whom he met five years earlier in a barbershop run by good pal Big Charles (a spot-on Nicco Annan),
Cordell – a Georgetown graduate — has yet to find suitable work during the past two months (although it’s obvious his real desire is to be a chef) and Hall creates viable tension between these lovers due to their financial inequity, Dwayne’s simmering resentment over constantly taking care of the sometimes child-like Cordell (who hasn’t even managed to get an actual divorce from his ex-wife) and Cordell’s persistent feelings of emasculation (even if Hall makes it clear, albeit subtly, which man is the dominant sexual partner).
The tension between the two gets further ratcheted up when Dwayne considers taking in E.J. (an excellent Cecil Blutcher), the 16-year-old son of his late sister, who has tired of living with his always-on-the-run father T.J. (Eric B. Robinson, painting a remarkably even-handed and sympathetic portrait of a man doing his best, not always legally, to survive). Having done his duties as a father, Cordell is not sure he wants to revisit that role, especially as E.J. has proven not to be completely trustworthy.
Then, adding fuel to the proverbial fire is the sheer presence of the ultra-flamboyant newcomer Isom (the scene-stealing Sheldon Best, making the most of Emilo Sosa’ costumes), who is not-so-secretly pining for the brash, butch Big Charles with whom he shared a one-night fling. More importantly, though, Isom foolishly ruins the enormous batch of wings Cordell is banking on to win the annual contest and the $5,000 prize that goes along with it.
Fortunately, while only an experienced cook might know if these wings can be salvaged, we’re never fully in doubt that all of these relationships can be saved, in some form or another, so we can leave the theater satisfied and with a good taste in our mouths.
Photos: Monique Carboni
The Hot Wing King continues at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street) through March 22. Visit www.SignatureTheater.org for tickets and information – Run Time 2 hrs, 20 min.