Should a play called Chicken have quite so many ‘stock’ characters? Sorry, no one could resist dabbling in culinary references: Michael Coveney called it “fit for a critical casserole” and Henry Hitchings in the Standard felt he could only identify “a nugget” within Mike Batistick’s play.
We are in the New York melting pot of the Bronx – or possibly Washington Heights, reviewers weren’t sure which side of the Harlem River this is set - but since the accents are all over the continent it would be picky to ask for such precision. Wendall (Craig Kelly), a blue collar New Yorker, works in a tollbooth on the Whitestone Bridge and comes home to his pregnant wife, a store clerk in Macy’s who wears five inch heels and smokes. Their cramped home is shared by couch-resident best mate Floyd (George Giorgiou), who persuades Wendall to take in and train a rooster for an illegal cockfight, despite the fact he’s bought it from a Cuban con-man and it’s already showing signs of sickliness.
The prospect of the rooster winning its bout is their metaphorical American Dream through which poverty may be escaped and misery averted for the moment: tempers flare and there’s a predictable climax when the lodger makes a play for the wife and the men act out cock fighting in silhouette. As a situation, it has potential, but with the flatness of direction, too many static duologues and some grossly inauthentic performances, it’s too difficult to care about their fate.
The problem is that the poverty and desolation of the characters isn’t grinding enough: the set is over-styled and insufficiently claustrophobic or grungy, neither are the people repellent enough to shock or disturb you: Wendall allegedly lives on a diet of stale, cold McDonalds, yet he’s wiry and overarticulate; despite being ‘older’ Lisa Maxwell’s Lina just isn’t adequately exhausted; and the ‘Cubans’ look Greek or Asian - no one seems to be trying hard enough to get it right.
There’s a sub-plot to do with getting hold of a secret recipe for fighting-cock feed from Floyd’s stroke-afflicted father Felix and in Andy Lucas’s tortured performance, beaten and humiliated by his aggressive son, there was a moment of pathos. Unfortunately, it didn’t last.
Which is a pity, because in Mike Batistick you have a youngish writer with something to say about New York’s minorities and the ways in which they do - or don’t - integrate with the city and with each other. His previous best-known work Port Authority Throw Down featured a constantly-taken-for-Arab Pakistani cab driver whose brother has been wrongly arrested by the FBI, a white evangelist, and the homeless African-American man he befriended at the eponymous bus station. From these well-imagined situations, he has yet to construct a script which retains the audience’s interest in their outcomes or which is self-assured enough to know whether it’s travelling the comic or dramatic route.
Hopefully, he’ll be back. Without the rooster.