A Search for a Secret Society Gets Tangled in "The Knife Is Money, The Fork Is Love"

“An idealist is one who, on noticing that roses smell better than cabbage, concludes that it will also make a better soup.” H.L Mencken, the journalist and satirist, wrote that a long time ago. As is true for many of Mencken’s trenchant quotes, it applies today. In particular, it helps explain why The Knife Is Money, The Fork Is Love, now at convergence-continuum, is more attractive in contemplation rather than in actuality. In other words, it ain’t soup yet.

Local playwright Jonathan Wilhelm is a man possessing a fecund and prolific mind, and he unloads many interesting ideas and promising digressions in the course of this often-stimulating play. Trouble is, Wilhelm seems so interested in every new thought that flutters by that the play eventually tangles itself in knots, leaving the story in the dust.

The play is set in the 1930s and central to the plot is a real pulp magazine, “Black Mask,” which was founded by Mencken and the drama critic George Jean Nathan. It’s where Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was serialized, and it’s the magazine that sets young Tobias off on a search for a secret society, in an attempt to discover the identity of his father.

Right from the start, new ideas are brought in as the actors comment and question what they’re doing. This meta approach is at first interesting, but it gradually begins to wear thin and then becomes rather irritating, since it interrupts the flow of the story. And that story has some compelling elements, including references to the hobo codes that those American vagabonds, many uprooted from their lives by the Depression, would use to communicate with each other. Indeed, the stage is ringed with some of these symbols.

Tobias’s search for members of the secret society, and a code that can help him understand who he is, takes plenty of side roads, and some of those are populated by characters we wish we could get to know better. Rob Branch plays three different roles, including hobo Shoefly Joe, who tosses Tobias from the boxcar where they had been riding, and Leander, a mysterious fellow with connections to the people Tobias is seeking. However, Branch’s crisp characterizations fly by a bit too quickly.

The same is true for Amy Bistok Bunce who plays both a schoolteacher Miss Everson and Theodora, a rural lass who wants to hook up with Tobias. Along the way there are repeated references to the “antediluvian nitpickers” who are causing so many problems. David Thonnings gives Tobias an appropriately confused and fuzzy mien, and Lucy Bredeson-Smith is arresting as Tobias’s mother Maggie and as the Snake Lady (don’t ask).

However, at the risk of being considered an antediluvian nitpicker, it seems that this script needs a strong shake or two, to see what loose parts might fall out and could be eliminated, and which promising but thin areas could be enhanced. Director Geoffrey Hoffman does wonders with this overly-abundant material, adding some nice staging touches (the run that Thonnings makes to catch up with the boxcar, while nothing is moving, is inspired).

Clearly, playwright Wilhelm is interested in tinkering with the conventional theatrical format, bringing a new perspective to how the audience and the performers relate to each other. And that’s fine, as long as we don’t get thrown out of the play’s boxcar and land in a field somewhere, dazed and confused.

In an ideal world, a play could contain as many elements as the playwright could envision, and we could all keep pace. But that’s not how it goes in real life. By focusing more on the story, (as all good noir mysteries do), and downplaying the meta aspects, this play cold be less of an enigma for the audience and live up to its wonderful title.

The Knife Is Money, The Fork Is Love
Through December 17, produced by convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074.
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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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