But hanging out is also on the menu, because in this excellent production directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, the playwright (“The Mountaintop”) has created characters so lively and lively that an understandable dramaturgical strategy is to let them riff. Audiences get to stay with them as they make this riff – as they tease, flirt, bicker and celebrate, complete with introspective interludes and the sampling of lemon-and-pepper chicken. The resulting scenes can feel pretty loose, especially in the first half of the play, but they can also be delightful.
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At the center of the food is Cordell (Brian Marable), who strives to top his previous festival triumphs of hot wings – parmesan and blueberry flavored entrees – with a bold new recipe. The kitchen is a valuable distraction for Cordell, who still feels uneasy about having left his wife and children to move in with his lover, Dwayne (Blake Morris) in Memphis.
Two friends help the fry crew: Big Charles (Bjorn DuPaty) and the lively, talkative Isom (Michael Kevin Darnall). A path to hot wing glory seems likely, until the unexpected arrival of Dwayne’s teenage nephew, Everett (Derrick Sanders III), and Everett’s father, TJ (JaBen Early).
Revelations about Everett’s family give “The Hot Wing King” dark, socially resonant depths. But between those serious beats – Broadnax calibrates the tones beautifully – the comedy retains its zest. Here, it’s Cordell who goes into mock bombast mode to boost the morale of his assistants. There, it is Isom who delights in double meanings and other conversational effervescences. “I can smell the shadow a mile away – I’m a walking umbrella,” Isom sings when he suspects his friends are mocking him behind his back.
Broadnax, which staged the play’s 2020 world premiere in New York, has assembled a fabulous cast for this version. Just to distinguish between two performances: Marable notably fuses a nostalgia for the lost soul into Cordell’s verve, and Morris deftly channels Dwayne’s energy, apprehensions and charm.
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Set designer Michael Carnahan’s detailed impression of a Memphis home helps complete our understanding of the characters’ situation. Amy Kellett designed the props, one of which – a container believed to hold a virulently spicy ingredient – ostensibly functions as a Scoville scale equivalent of the gun in Chekhov’s famous playwriting premise.
A final reveal in the visual design helps give the story a nice closure. Such help is almost necessary because the characters of “The Hot Wing King” hardly seem inclined to wrap up their jokes. They might just hang around all night and riff.
The king of hot wings, by Katori Hall. Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III; costume design, Ivania Stack; lighting, Alan C. Edwards; sound, Curtis Craig. About 2h30. $65 – $95. Through July 31 at the Studio Theater, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. studiotheatre.org.