An admitted work in progress, “Salt Pepper Ketchup” rates whatever finishing touches author Josh Wilder needs to apply between its current production at Trenton’s Passage Theatre and its next incarnation at Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre later this month.
Wilder and Passage already present enough worthwhile material to engage and think about.
“‘Salt Pepper Ketchup’s’ subject is the changing of a dicey neighborhood via rapid, milieu-altering gentrification. It shrewdly depicts a complete range of well-drawn characters and situations that illustrate how long-time dwellers and renovating newcomers affect and are affected by the phenomenon.
Director Jerrell L. Henderson has assembled a strong, believable cast, each of whom manages to be individual while representing a group or type whose world and perspective are altered by what one character calls a revolution to which another character says everyone must adjust.
The scene is Philadelphia’s Point Breeze neighborhood, a marginal area bordering on the posh and next in geography to have its homes and stores renewed from slum fare to urban chic.
The setting is that staple of all marginal areas, the “Chinese joint,” the Asian takeout place where denizens can get popular food quickly and at reasonable prices.
John Wu (Fenton Li) and his wife, Linda (Chuja Seo), scratch out the living they can, enough for them to reside in a New Jersey suburb, while providing the wings and fried rice Point Breeze folks love to douse with the condiments in Wilder’s title.
Here he argues with regulars that his place is not a “joint” but a “restaurant,” and she barks orders and demands payment in a familiar, stereotypical style from her kitchen or cash register, both securely protected from intrusion via plexiglass.
Intrusion for the Wus comes from a different quarter, one that seems benign but turns out to be as threatening as a lethal weapon, and one that no half-inch barrier can render impervious.
Point Breeze is the next step in a Philly urban renewal that began in the 1960s when Mayor Richardson Dilworth transformed Society Hill from a tenderloin to a million-dollar enclave.
Existing residents resent the rising prices the newcomers bring. They may like the increased cleanliness but don’t appreciate the snobbery and the idea that they have to leave and find a new slum as their territory is claimed and sanitized by those right behind the original pioneers.
Now a food co-op dedicated to the organic, vegan, wholesome, and fresh has opened down the block from Wu’s joint. Its coordinator, Paul (Justin Pietropaolo), is not content to co-exist. He wants Wu’s menu to reflect the changing environment.
Saying he approaches Wu in the spirit of help, Paul’s objective is to enlist him as a member of the co-op and change what makes Wu and his customers happy to something that suits Paul and his Utopian idea of what a chichi urban neighborhood should be.
Among interesting takes Wilder presents in “Salt Pepper Kitchen” is the jaundiced eye with which he regards the lofty, self-consciously correct do-gooder who may also be an intruder and a bully in hipster’s clothing.
Wilder’s play works, even as is, because it deals with the people in times of change who, with pros and cons in each of their corners, grind their heels in the starting blocks and refuse to budge. Wilder is also good at depicting methods each side may use to make the other yield. Some of these passages are among the ones he has to clean up or make more integral and less cut-and-dried.
Fenton Li is marvelous as the focal John Wu, a man who sees what Paul wants but prefers to do business as he always has. Wu is the one caught most between status quo and an obvious need to at some time adapt. He is the one who is most right even when he is somewhat wrong. Li plays his confidence, confusion, compliance, and anger realistically and with humor.
Justin Pietropaolo matches Li in presenting Paul as someone who appears modern and open but is as entrenched as Wilder’s slum dwellers in a single point of view he can’t see past. Pietropaolo captures the do-gooder and intransigent power figure in Paul. His a fine-honed performance that grows as Paul gains influence and fosters two conflicting attitudes in a sequence in which Paul should receive only empathy.
Kendra Holloway defies acting as CeCe, one of the restaurant’s regulars also affected by the changes. She steps on the Passage stage as the woman herself, nailing lines and etching a strong character on our memories. Chuja Seo does well as both the bossy and the unexpectedly cooperative Linda. Miriam White captures the insufferable nature of her character, one who is all friendly and idealistic but expects the world to bend to her view. Richard Bradford, Jason C. Battle, and especially Mark Christie give a taste of Point Breeze before Paul encroaches.
Colin McIlvaine’s sets for Wu’s joint are on the mark. Jacqueline Holloway’s fight choreography brings you right into the action and provides mixed reactions, all forceful and beneficial to “Salt Pepper Ketchup.” An-lin Dauber is canny and precise in her costuming.
Further defining some of those characters, and making one a bit more consistent, is part of Wilder’s continuing work. To keep some of his plot from looking convenient to the needs of his play, he may also want to review how leases work when new landlords acquire current renters.
In general, “Salt Pepper Ketchup” is in fine, provocative shape, ready to absorb an audience at Passage and promising to be more powerful yet when it reaches InterAct.
Salt Pepper Ketchup, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Through Sunday, October 14. Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 3 p.m. $33 to $38. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.