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“Hot Wing King” take a while to get cooking at Writers Theatre

At one point in “The Hot Wing King,” a character named Isom, played by Joseph Anthony Byrd, pours a whole shaker’s worth of nuclear-level peppers into his friend’s simmering pot of chicken wings.
From there, and after a shaky start, things heat up at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.
We’re already a good way into Act 1 before that catalyst, and the first few minutes of this first Chicago-area production of Katori Hall’s 2020 drama struggles to find the right balance between frenetic kitchen action (a group of gay Black men work together on a killer wings recipe that might win a contest) and the kind of verbal and especially physical clarity this kind of ensemble piece needs to introduce characters to an audience, foreground the most important lines and set up the complex themes of the play, which in this case involve Black masculinity, homophobia, parenting and friendship.
Director Lili-Anne Brown’s production is staged on a grand, multi-level set from Lauren M. Nichols that is both a beautiful rendition of an affluent suburban home and a design that doesn’t entirely work for this production: an upper level is not used much, the wing prep is back away from the audience and a home basketball court, where most of the crucial scenes take place, is set off in a corner. You never feel like you are really in the heat of the kitchen or that these likable men are shoved together in the flow of kinetic motion that is communal cooking; too many lines end up landing straight upstage and there is something about this setup that doesn’t take the best advantage of the most powerful spots in Writers’ mainstage theater, which is down front, where we’re stuck mostly with a couch instead of the sizzling wings and the big personalities.
All that said, the quality of these Chicago actors eventually takes hold as we follow the protagonist Cordell (Breon Arzell), who has taken a leap, left his marriage in St. Louis and moved in with Dwayne (Jos N. Banks), a successful and hard-working hotel manager. The hot wings may make up a lot of the action in a play structured as a situational dramedy, but the playwright’s thematic emphasis is partly on the nature of male friendship (Cordell and Dwayne are hanging out with pals Isom and Big Charles, played by the droll understudy Darryl D’Angelo Jones at the Saturday performance I saw) and partly on the dilemmas faced by the couple when it comes to whether or not they should take over the parenting of Dwayne’s 16-year-old nephew Everett (Jabari Khaliq, a fine actor but who reads more as a man in his mid-20s than a high school kid, which is a bit of an issue). Taking in Everett involves a negotiation with his father, TJ (the superb Kevin Tre’von Patterson) over the boy’s future and, indeed, fatherhood in general. Everett is without his mom; she died while she was being restrained by police.
Once we’re into all of those salient themes, the production finds a much firmer footing and the strengths of this writer (also the author of “The Mountaintop”) shine through, not the least of which is her depiction here of vivid, empathetic characters, all with their struggles but all living their best lives when together.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
cjones5@chicagotribune.com
Review: “The Hot Wing King” (2.5 stars)
When: Through July 21
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $35-$90 at 847-242-6000 and www.writerstheatre.org

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