Corruption makes for stranger bed-fellows. Such is the case with a certain group of narcotics officers in notoriously brutal Hellz Kitchen. On the heels of a drug bust gone bad, eight gold shield Detectives, secretly known to each other as “La Familia”, regroup in an abandoned warehouse with several pieces of business on the table.
The first order of business is a private wake to toast their fallen comrade, Bay-Bay. As Bay-bay’s partner, Detective Michael Mishkeno (Gary Werntz) feels this lost the greatest. “Spach” Espuchiano (Robert Mangiardi) bears his own yoke of guilt since it was his informant who supplied flawed intel which lead to the deadly confrontation with well armed drug dealers.
Detective Marian L’Arena (Stefan Lysenko) is the great mediator of the group. He backs Mishkeno in the unreliability of informants. Throughout the evening he assuages the anxieties of Detective Bossano Hemed (Phil Parolisi), personally vouching for everyone in the room by insisting that no one present is wearing a wire and publicly declares his brotherly love for his timid partner Carmine Camaitello (Michael Camacho). Despite the bigoted rants of veteran Detective Stromboni Fonagredda (Chris Taylor), Marian seconds Spach’s choice for Dash Freeman (Tim Starks) as go-to guy for the second order of business: retrieving the money from the crime scene that will be split among them. Stromboni’s new rookie partner Geoffrey White (Jay Duncan) rounds out the motley crew of corrupt cops. Tempers flare and personalities clash as the wee hours wane. Through the course of the night, two suspicions keep resurfacing:
When is the money coming?
Is there an informant among them?
At the start, Hellz Kitchen Ablaze meanders a bit. It takes more than a minute to identify the relationships in play, and even longer to define the fragile hierarchy among them. However, the play rights itself to become is a dangerous brew of tattered nerves, testosterone and short fuses, quite reminiscent of the morally ambiguous works of Neil LaBute. Playwright Tommy Carter has crafted an intense crime drama that balances male bravado with human introspection. The piece is a foul-mouthed chess game that each detective is playing with each of the other seven men in the room. And the trust that bonds them, the oath of La Familia, is quickly wearing thin.
Hellz Kitchen Ablaze is very much an ensemble piece, so congratulations should be given to the cast as a whole. However, Stefan Lysenko stands out as Detective Marian L’Arena thanks to the depth of character Carter has drawn and Lysenko’s sheer magnitude of presence that steadily grows in prominence as the night’s events unfolded.
The one act structure of the piece serves it well and the small performance play actually adds to the sense of claustrophobia and confinement. The play is a controlled chaos that is steadily pulling free of its restraints. Also, you as an audience member get to choose who you are invested in. There is no clear protagonist because all these cops are dirty. If the audience doesn’t know who to root for, there is no way to know how it will end. It is very cool to walk into a show not knowing how it’s going to end.
Hellz Kitchen Ablaze runs now through February 6, 2010 at:
Elephant Space Theatre
6322 Santa Monica Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90038
Performances: Thursdays, Fridays 7 Saturdays @ 8PM
For reservations call: (323)960-7111
Photos by Lindsay Allbaugh