Raging Skillet at TheaterWorks Is Problematic Play about a Chef

By Karen Isaacs

Will you like Raging Skillet, the world premiere play by Jacques Lamarre now at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Sunday, Aug. 27?

Just answer these simple questions:

Does loud rock music split your eardrums?

Does lots of gratuitous four letter words bother you?

Do you think stereotypical, guilt inducing mothers inherently funny?

Does insulting your mother seem acceptable?

If you answered no to the first two and yes to the last two, you should rush out a get tickets to this show about a “celebrity” food writer/caterer who goes by the name of Rossi. Apparently she is well known, though as a dedicated Food Network viewer, I had never heard of her.

The play – with three characters – is based on her “humorous” memoir of the same name, which is also the name of her catering company. The premise is that this is her book launch party and the ghost of her mother shows up.  The book is hawked endlessly and, yes, you can buy it on stage after the show.

Chef Rossi, played excellently by Dana Smith-Croll, describes herself as a Jewish, Lesbian, punk rock woman and chef.

She tells stories of her up-bringing in New Jersey where Mom killed food in the microwave. Rossi (her father changed his name from Rosenthal to Ross; she changed it to Rossi, for no stated reason) started cooking what she called Jewish white trash food.  What was offered to the audience did not seem particularly interesting though I did not taste it.

She was every parents’ nightmare as a teenager, using various drugs, disobeying rules and eventually running away from home. After being arrested for selling drugs, her parents packed her off to Brooklyn and a home run by a Hasidic Jew for problem causing Jewish teenagers.

Her interest in food continued and when she can she escapes to Manhattan where she becomes first a bartender and then works her way through the various jobs in the kitchen. Obviously, she earned her stripes and has talent because she has received numerous accolades from The New York Times, Zagat, and was named one of The Knot’s best wedding caterers multiple times.

Marilyn Sokol has the unenviable job of playing her mother. She’s been dead for years but returns for the book launch. She combines all the stereotypes of both the Jewish mother – Yiddish flows abundantly – but also of any guilt-inducing ethnic mother. She is the target for her daughter’s humor and anger. Only at the end of the play, when Rossi reads her mother’s “book” does she acknowledge that her mother was an accomplished woman who earned a master’s in mathematics and played violin in a symphony.

The third character is DJ Skillit, Rossi’s sous-chef who plays a number of roles and supposedly controls the often blaring music.

Audience reaction on the official opening night was mixed. Some found the show great fun and hilarious, others said they smiled at some of the jokes while others were pretty much stony faced throughout.

The pluses to this production are the skillful direction by John Simpkins, the set by Michael Schweikardt and the performances.

Smith-Croll has the difficult job of making Rossi likeable but a rebel and, for the most part, she succeeds. At the end, you see some warmth in her and realize that the persona she creates is just that. Marilyn Sokol has a difficult with task playing Mom: she is both passive-aggressive and a stereotype. That Sokol carries it off without the least bit of embarrassment is commendable. At times the role is cringe-inducing. DJ Skillit is less a character than a device, George Salazar does a good job with this amorphous role.

It’s hard to identify the basic problem with this piece. Is it the adaptation by Jacques Lamarre? Or is it the source material? How do you convey Rossi’s image and yet make the audience both like her and identify with her? While Lamarre may be true to Rossi’s “brand” and personality, that doesn’t necessarily create a satisfying work of theater.

The press materials for this production talks about the play as an “compelling story about a mother and a daughter and the commitment to family.”  Somehow that does not come through strongly enough.

Raging Skillet, may be a play that younger audiences may be more receptive to and enjoy both her and her story more.

Given the language used, this is not a piece for children, nor those with sensitive ears. Older people may find the Rossi’s comments to and attitude towards her mother distressing.

Yet, it has fine performances.  I did not love this work, but you might.  Perhaps a glass or two of wine before the show would increase the enjoyment factor.

Raging Skillet is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Harford, through Sunday, Aug. 27.  For tickets. Call 860-527-7838.

Content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.

raging skillit 2 by lanny nagler

Photo by Lanny Nagler

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