Raging Skillet – Review by Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle

“Raging Skillet”: A raucous true-life glimpse at a top woman chef in the Big Apple at TheaterWorks Hartford, CT

Playwright Jacques Lamarre likes food. He likes to write plays about food. His previous plays, I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti at Theaterworks Hartford and Born Fat at Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury are laugh-out-loud comedies – with just enough pathos to underscore the up and down realities of life.

The latest play, Raging Skillet, playing at Theaterworks through August 27, has more sentimentality than comedy. It is loud and brash and a bit annoying. Ah, but there’s a soothing rub – the way superb comedic actress Marilyn Sokol plays a sterotypical Jewish mother as broad as anyone should play a stereotypical anybody. Her performance is the best thing about this 90 minutes in the theater.

Momma complains, she cries, she screams. She is the perfect example of how a mother should not be. With her manic delivery, we laugh at some very stale jokes, some good new ones, and because of her Yiddish ranting, try to understand what she is talking about much of the time.

This is the Yiddish Theater reborn. For those of the faith in the audience, guffaws ring out with every other line. For those not so well versed in the language there is so much Yiddish and Hebrew in the book that one-language folks can only assume these are laugh lines. Yes, it’s about a specific culture and parts of it may well appeal to general audiences. What to do. It is a play in development and Mr. Lamarre has the talent to polish the disjointed work into a more focused, linear plot with a believable and stronger resolution.

The main character, Chef Rossi, played by Dana Smith-Croll, is described as a “Jewish lesbian, punk-rock caterer.” The premise is that she’s invited the audience to her book launch. The book is endlessly touted throughout the show as the reason that we are in the theater. The punk-rock part comes early on with a screaming DJ (George E. Salazar) attempting to fire up the audience with an increasingly annoying blast of sound bites. Everything from “Light My Fire” to “Yiddle With the Fiddle” is punched into his iPad for a continuous flow of noise.

The chapter titles of “the book” are flashed onto either side of the stage. A segment about the death of Elvis while mother and daughter are shopping in an outlet store in the South is particularly puzzling. It makes absolutely no sense. Other chapters refer to the family outings when Rossi was younger. The DJ plays the voices of many characters, all of whom sound the same, so it’s not easy to follow who’s who.

The stage Chef Rossi limits her catering prowess to making trailer-park food. She and the DJ rush up and down the aisles with trays of BBQ chicken on a Ritz, bacon strips dunked in chocolate, and bites of Snickers and potato chip casserole. Peanut allergy patrons beware! Sizzling bacon in a pan sends out a sickly aroma into the audience – she fries it up for no reason. (The real-life Chef Rossi has been named by Knot wedding website as one of New York’s top caterers – and she’s been successfully doing her thing for the past 26 years, with elegant creative offerings from Asian fusion to Cuban and Jamaican to vegan and gluten free.) www.ragingskillet.com. More of the up and downs about the chef’s actual rise to the top of the catering world and less of the mother-daughter conflict might seriously help the play and its audiences.

When the words and music do become subtle from time to time, the play morphs into yucky forced sentimentality. Flipping through old photographs, the caterer and the DJ sigh and giggle quietly in remembrance of things past. But that same past is described earlier in the show as not-so-good. The late mother about whom they are mooning is narrow-minded and hates the word “lesbian.” She even tries to kill her daughter’s girlfriend. Rossi is justifiably rebellious. She is tough and unsympathetic. Do we like these characters? Do we like people more after they’re dead? Are we supposed to shed a tear?

Decide for yourself as you visit Theaterworks and see what develops with the continuing saga of Raging Skillet. And, if you brush up on your Yiddish and Hebrew, you’ll enjoy the show a whole lot more. Mazel tov.

For tickets and information, go to www.theaterworkshartford.org. The theater is located at 233 Pearl Street in Hartford, Connecticut. Parking for a fee is located close to and behind the theater.