Where's The Beef?

Paper-thin Characters In International House Of Hamburgers Leave A Bad Taste

Joe the Plumber, the favorite pull-toy of the blessedly concluded McCain/Palin campaign, attained fleeting iconic status. But given the economic nuclear winter that will greet the winner of the 2008 election, the dignity of even brain-numbing employment is nothing to denigrate.

So local playwright Cliff Hershman is on to something in his new play, International House of Hamburgers, which is being given its world-premiere performance at the Bang and the Clatter's Cleveland venue, Something in the Silence. It focuses on the struggles of some kitchen workers in a corporate restaurant chain who still dare to dream.

Unfortunately, an interesting premise is sabotaged by writing that fails to establish compelling characters, performances in key roles that have all the subtlety of a frying pan upside the head and pacing by director Christopher Johnston that makes this less-than-90-minute one-act seem a long slog.

Initially, the set design by Marcus Dana shows potential, capturing a realistic kitchen aura complete with commercial storage racks, stainless steel food bins and even a working gas grill. Although some vegetarians may be put off by the remnants of cow grease that billow off that super-heated surface, you have the undeniable impression that you are in a functioning restaurant kitchen. Until the play begins.

At that point, we are introduced to characters that come across as two-dimensional simulations rather than living, breathing people. Head cook Matthew wants to be promoted to kitchen manager. But his boss - a surly, penny-pinching suit named Spencer - has other ideas. Meanwhile, Matthew's honey Carol is waiting tables before she splits to go back to college. And old hand Al - the stock, self-effacing older black man whose wisdom is always in inverse proportion to his success in life - floats nearby.

After a few funny lines early on (Matthew complaining about Al's boom box that constantly plays George Benson: "It's like a Cialis commercial in my head all day long"), the two men settle into a not-so-dynamic relationship featuring Matt's restless ambition and Al's quiet competence. And although Matthew and Carol (Amy Bistok Bunce) wind up kissing each other a couple times near the slop sink, it's never clear why they are attracted to each other, especially since Matthew apparently blew all of Carol's $36,000 inheritance.

The playwright has a vision of this kitchen as a microcosm of life - with all its hopes, betrayals and disappointments writ small - and it could be, if better executed. But it never seems we are in a real place. Virtually no orders ever show up in the kitchen, but Matthew keeps grilling burgers and tossing them onto buns. And a corporate guy, Dennis (a baffled-looking Stuart Hoffman), appears on scene as the new kitchen manager, pissing off Matthew and confusing the audience, since it's never made clear how Dennis fits into the mix.

That lack of credibility and attention to detail extends to some of the performances. Although Rodney Freeman as Al and Benjamin Gates as illegal immigrant clean-up boy Jimmy handle their roles with style, others leave much to be desired. Brian McNally never brings Matthew into focus, often yelling instead of internalizing his lines. And Rollin McNamara Michael has more names than good moments, projecting Spencer's sliminess so broadly it's almost unintentionally comical.

Before the final curtain, Matthew helpfully elucidates the play's theme by observing, "This is life." Theater Rule No. 23: If you have to say it, you haven't done it.

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International House of Hamburgers Through November 22 BNC's Something in the Silence 224 Euclid Ave. 330.606.5317