Raging Skillet – Review by Geary Danihy

Angst and Appetizers

What’s a Jewish girls to do when she lives in a kosher environment, has a mother who kvetches at the drop of a yamaka, and a father who communicates via grunts? Why she rebels, of course, slides down into a world of booze, drugs and disreputable friends and then claws her way back up via the commercial kitchen, eventually becoming a caterer of renown. Such is the story of Rossi as dramatized by Jacques Lamarre in Raging Skillet, which recently opened at TheaterWorks under the direction of John Simpkins. This memoir as play offers an evening as light as a soufflé though not as satisfying.

As he did with his I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, Lamarre has drawn from a book written by a chef, but unlike I Loved, a one-character play, this time we not only have the chef but her ever-faithful sous chef and the chef’s mother. The only problem is, the mother has been dead for some 20 years and has come back to haunt her daughter during a book signing event, but death hasn’t changed Mom (Marilyn Sokol) – she’s still a pain in the tukus.

As with I Loved, the play is set in a kitchen (designed by Michael Schweikardt), but this one is equipped with strobe lights and speakers that can knock your socks off, speakers that throb with the music programmed by the sous chef, DJ Skillit (George Salazaar), who doubles as a, yes, DJ, as well as takes on such roles as Rossi’s inarticulate father, a Rasta chef who won’t take orders from a female and a short Russian oligarch who funds a West Side restaurant.

When Mom isn’t butting in, the play focuses on Rossi (Dana Smith-Croll), who relates her rise to culinary fame through a series of vignettes and anecdotes. Smith-Croll is quite engaging as the lesbian rebel with a whisk, but she is never really allowed to get up to full speed, for Mom is there to carp and comment. As written by Lamarre, Mom is the quintessential Jewish Mother, a one-dimensional character who finds fault with just about everything her daughter does, wields guilt like a rusty razor and is obsessed with saving money by using coupons and patronizing establishments that offer senior discounts. If there is such a thing as the Association of Jewish Mothers I wouldn’t be surprised if it picketed the theater.

Smith-Croll’s development of her character is also impeded by the numerous times the audience is served, either by her or DJ, with appetizers or “Jewish Sangria.” Both individually walk the aisles with trays, offering little goodies – the first time it’s cute, but after awhile it become repetitive and boringly time-consuming. Often, as DJ is serving, Smith-Croll is consigned to a darkened stage, just watching. Whatever momentum she might have developed as she tells Rossi’s story is broken time and again.

Then there’s the tug-at-the-heartstrings finale when Mom reappears and slams down a photo album, proclaiming that she, too, has written a book. As Rossi thumbs through the album images are projected stage left and right, images of Mom as a girl and young woman, and it is only now that the audience learns that this was a multi-talented, well-educated woman who lived a fulfilling life, not the caricature the audience has been treated to. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late, and the moment, such as it is, is tainted with Mom’s reappearance to give final words of advice about complaining – no one remembers a compliment but if complain you just might get a discount or, even better, something free.

There’s a compelling, multi-layered story in Rossi’s life, one that, if nothing else, deals with competing loyalties and a young woman’s attempt to define herself. Her book may very well capture this, but the play is mostly surface and schmaltz.

Raging Skillet runs through August 27. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org

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