Review: LA COCINA at Loft Ensemble

Mayhem in the kitchen, superbly orchestrated

By: Feb. 02, 2024
Review: LA COCINA at Loft Ensemble

The high wire act that is Tony Meneses’ play LA COCINCA is a feat that companies of greater capabilities than Loft Ensemble might not pull off.  But there you have it. On a small stage in an easy-to-Miss Church next to a strip mall in North Hollywood, some real theatrical artistry is going down. Like the employees at a posh New York eatery, who spend hour after hour – night after night – cranking out delicacies while balancing their own lives, you may wonder how the production’s director Adam Chambers and his ensemble pull this endavor off.

But pull it off they collectively do. There are 19 performers barreling across that stage, dispatching orders, picking up plates, whisking, saucing, grilling and doing all the other things that we hungry oblivious patrons who frequent such restaurants (in our dreams!) don’t see. But Because the view in LA COCINA is of the kitchen, this time we see it all, and we observe the toll it exacts.

Meneses’ intention here is not a subtle one; we get it via an opening speech delivered by the front of house staff to a group of trainees. Later, Pablo, the restaurant’s fish preparation specialist (and the playwright’s erstwhile mouthpiece) played by Alejandro Mungaray, delivers a monolog about the cost of dreams and the impossibility of ever having them fulfilled. This man is having a singularly awful day, but in a way, Pablo's plight is no worse than anybody else's.

“That woman out there, that’s my dream. That’s all I got. I don’t even dare ask for more, not in this world,” Pablo tells his fellow workers, referring to Helen (Jay Hoshina), his girlfriend who works front of house, “not when the message over and over is that this is it, this is where we’re always going to be stuck…” Pablo’s speech is acknowledged, and then everybody gets back to work. Because realistically what else are they supposed to do?

Meneses weaves several small plots through the bustle. A new chef Monique (Leah Haile) is thrown almost literally into the fire on her first day on the job under the hawkish gaze of the restaurant’s owner Sylvia (Berenice Diaz) who wants two staff members fired by the end of the night. A fight the previous day has set some of the front of house staff against members of the kitchen (specifically Pablo), and all of the Latino cleaning staff have refused to report to work. Meaning everybody has to pull extra duty and work together. Which, for the most part, they do.

Other goings-on amidst the food prep frenzy: salad chefs and roommates Paul (Max Reed III) and Rotimi (Paul D. Davis) fly their odd couple flags - Paul is a veteran of the Afganistan conflict  and a bit of a player whlie Rotimi is a Muslim who has a bit more respect for women. Protein cook Nick (Biniyam Abreha) has a thing for front of house worker Winnie (Elena Nicholson). Another front of staffer Wesley (Carlos Gomez Jr.) moves into the kitchen to help out, in part because he too had a lousy day and is at the epicenter of the Pablo dust-up.

Considering how quickly LA COCINA goes about its business (100 minutes with an intermission), there are a lot of players, a ton of movement and quite a bit to keep track of. Chambers proves himself adept at directing traffic, and also of keeping everyone in synch for some communal moments between the ensemble. I don’t know whether an entire kitchen staff would ever rock out together or share a dance beat to a single tune, but these bits play nicely.

The setting feels equally right. Scenic designer Madylin Sweetin Durrie’s multi-stationed cooking space carves out just enough space for the various staff to do their work while not being too much up in each other’s, ahem!, grill.

After observing the frenetic scramblings of Meneses’ Cocina players, devotees of FX’s restaurant series THE BEAR may find themselves hungering for new episodes. Going further back, LA COCINA may also stir up echoes of Becky Mode’s backstage restaurant comedy FULLY COMMITTED in which a reservation booker has a day from hell.

FULLY COMMITTED, however, employed one actor. LA COCINA uses nearly 20. That Chambers and his Lofy Ensemble performers are able to get through the evening with this kind of finesse is worthy of a lifted glass.

LA COCINA plays through Feb. 11. at 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood.

Photo by Sean Durrie.