nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
March 3, 2007
It is more than money that spurs needy friends, irresponsible parents, and disloyal spouses to rally around a rooster primed for an illegal cockfight. In Mike Batistick's brash new play, Chicken, now at Studio Dante, the characters are propelled by past transgressions and are ready to repeat the mistakes that have made them so bitter. In the process, they hurt the ones they love and discover something after great sacrifice—family.
The story revolves around Floyd, an angry unemployed man, who moves into the cramped, cluttered Bronx apartment of his good-natured friend Wendell and his pregnant wife, Lina. Floyd, who was abandoned to foster care as a kid, uses his sorry childhood as an excuse for his aggressive, adult behavior—imposing on his friend, taking his money, using his wife, abusing his elderly, incapacitated father, Felix, who previously abandoned him, and ignoring his own children. Wendell, also a product of foster care and protected by Floyd as a child, now feels obligated to him.
At the opening, Wendell has purchased a rooster for an upcoming cockfight in which the winnings promise to be big. He expects Floyd to prep the bird as Floyd's father used to do in Cuba. The cockfight, a metaphor for male dominance, provides Wendell with an intriguing scheme to get Floyd out of his apartment and back to his job with the mechanic, Geronimo, so that Wendell can concentrate on his real family. The scheme works, but not without sacrifice.
In Chicken, the concept of family is elusive. For this family consists of Floyd, acting like a hormonal teenager rebelling against a substitute father figure; Floyd's ex-wife, Rosalind, secretly on Wendell's dole; and, of course, Lina, resentful of her pregnancy, of Floyd's presence, of the rooster in her living room, and indifferent to Wendell. It is a group of "takers," leaving Wendell, a man of precarious health, with all of the burdens of family life and few of the pleasures. Yet, Wendell is steady, patient, and hopeful. His most ostensible sign of anxiety is his constant eating. EJ Carroll is a terrific choice for Wendell, his large girth magnifying the character's big-heartedness. He shows vulnerability and grace in traversing Floyd's objections and in convincing Floyd to approach his estranged father for a recipe necessary to prepare the rooster for the big fight.
Michael Imperioli delivers an appealing, often funny, hothead in his portrayal of Floyd. He has the difficult task of taking the live rooster out of his cage, stroking him, and occasionally sending him flying. At these moments, Imperioli is calm and gentle, perhaps hinting that Floyd actually possesses some humanity. Or, maybe, Imperioli needs to concentrate, as does the audience, on the unpredictability of the live poultry in his hands. Either way, it gives Floyd, whose sense of entitlement is out of bounds, an opportunity to show that his depraved behavior could actually be reversed by the play's end. Imperioli infuses the character with brash charm and enough personality to make the overstuffed apartment feel downright claustrophobic. (As a son of a Cuban immigrant living in the Bronx, why is Floyd speaking with a Southern accent?)
Sharon Angela grounds the whirl of circus activity around her with her portrayal of Lina. The lure of big money from the pending cockfight cannot dim the reality of her world—that she is pregnant with a child she does not want, that she has no privacy, even in the bathroom, and that she will always need to clip coupons to save a dime. Angela's deliberate movements and soulful expressions capture her character's sad resignation. A fine counterpoint to Angela is Quincy Tyler Bernstine in the role of Floyd's ex-wife, Rosalind. Snappy, alert, and sharp-tongued, Rosalind usually gets what she wants, and what she wants from Wendell is money. Bernstine brings bubblegum-cracking bounce to the role. Raul Aranas and Lazaro Perez round out the cast nicely as Geronimo and Felix, respectively.
Director Nick Sandow keeps the characters on the edge of each other's words. He might have given more attention to the tragedy that befalls Wendell, allowing the others—and the audience—to absorb its impact and react to it. Batistick has populated a small neighborhood bursting with characters trying to get by. He has a keen ear for convincing dialog. The characters come and go freely as if the doors don't have locks, comfortable in their skin and in the familiar, tight apartment designed by Victoria Imperioli. Stacks and stacks of magazines, giveaways and coupons are stuffed on shelves and in baskets, an accumulation of stuff in an air-tight room that is—thank goodness—someone else's home. The set is terrific. She also designed the costumes. Adding to the atmosphere is Tony Giovannetti's lighting and David Margolin Lawson's sound.
Chicken provides an entertaining evening of theater. Given the sharp script, the well-paced direction, and the talented cast, there is every reason to head to Studio Dante.