For the characters in Chicken, the Mike Batistick dramedy playing at Studio Dante, age is nothing more than a number. While they've got on in years and even have raised or sired offspring of their own, they are all very much children themselves. Studio Dante is co-founded and co-run by Michael Imperioli, the Emmy-winning co-star of The Sopranos (he plays Christopher Moltisanti), and just like that acclaimed series, Chicken is about a highly dysfunctional family. Imperioli is Floyd, an unemployed powder keg who imposes on his childhood friend Wendell (E.J. Carroll) and Wendell's older, pregnant wife, Lina (Sharon Angela, also a Sopranos regular), by moving into their claustrophobic Bronx apartment. (Imperioli's wife, Victoria, deserves much applause for the realistic set design.)
Floyd and Wendell share a close, sad bond: both met as children in the New York foster care system. But the two have traveled markedly different roads into adulthood. While Wendell struggles to make ends meet and neglects his health, Floyd blames his childhood for his impulsive, hedonistic behavior and feels justified in taking Wendell's money; abusing Felix (Lazaro Perez), the father who gave him up; and even abandoning his own children.
Wendell has decided to raise a rooster for a cockfight and then reap the winnings. He deludes himself into thinking that Floyd, a Cuban-American, will assist him (apparently Felix used to do this sort of thing during his Cuban past) and feel compelled to move himself out of the apartment.
Imperioli may try to steal every scene, but director Nick Sandow makes it clear that the heart of Chicken lies with his married couple. Carroll is terrific as a flawed, harried Everyman whose loyalty to those around him is immense—to a fault. And Angela is every inch his equal as Lina, who knows no passion, only resentment—of her life, her apartment, her husband, her pregnancy. Watching the two of them together made me forget the opulent surroundings that make up the relatively new Studio Dante and left me convinced that I was watching—rooting for, even—a pair of have-nots.
The same cannot quite be said of Imperioli's scenes. Yes, Floyd is a showboating character, but he errs on the side of mania and seems like more of a cardboard character than a three-dimensional man, capable of changing. Furthermore, his accent—New York by way of Cuba—rings false. It sounds more like the highly YouTubed rap Natalie Portman sang last year on Saturday Night Live than organic speech.
This is never more evident than in Floyd's scene with Felix. Perez does an exceedingly moving job, capturing the rhythms of someone trying to reconnect with the son he once wronged even as his mind and body have failed him. To Batistick's credit, this pathos is never trite or cloying. I do wish, though, he had provided a little more information about Floyd's and Wendell's past. Every detail doesn't need to be spelled out, but by creating so much guesswork, he ultimately creates indifference on the audience's part.
I wish, too, that Batistick had found a way to integrate more of his characters at once. Many of Floyd's and Lina's scenes are two-character moments. For example, when Rosalind (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), Floyd's ex-wife, appears, she fires most of her tart daggers Lina's way. Why doesn't she have more of a confrontation with Floyd? This is an important question, since Floyd learns earlier that Wendell has been secretly providing her with money.
All this may have been a logistical choice on Sandow's part—the tight set allows for only so many characters onstage at once before they start blending and bumping into one another. Yet it would have been nice if this talented cast had had the chance to gel somewhat more as an ensemble.
I also found the Rosalind character a bit of a conceit. Though Bernstine delivers her lines with aplomb, Batistick makes them sound a little too articulate and perceptive, and as a result too rehearsed, for such a spontaneous character.
Sandow's pacing falters a little in the second act, which runs only half the length of the first. Major events occur with little time to ruminate on their consequences or to create full dramatic effect. Yet Batistick 's broader questions ring loud and clear by the play's end. What makes a family? What makes a man? I wish he had provided something in the way of an answer.