At “The Hot Wing King,” prepare to do some hanging out. But not because urgent themes are lacking in this Pulitzer Prize-winning work by Katori Hall, now at Studio Theatre. The funny, moving tale of Black gay friends and lovers navigating responsibility and guilt — all while prepping for a hot wing festival — touches on pressing issues such as mental health as well as on the intricacies of Cajun marinade. That’s on top of its exuberant comedy involving, for instance, ways to ruin Cajun marinade.
But hanging out is also on the menu, because in this excellent production directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, the playwright (“The Mountaintop”) has created such vivid, lively characters that an understandable dramaturgical strategy is to let them riff. The audience gets a chance to hang with them as they do that riffing — as they tease, flirt, bicker and celebrate, with interludes of soul searching and the sampling of lemon-pepper chicken. The resulting scenes can feel quite loose, especially in the play’s first half, but they can also be delectable.
At the center of the sustenance is Cordell (Brian Marable), who’s striving to top his previous triumphs at the hot wing festival — Parmesan- and blueberry-flavored entries — with an audacious new recipe. Cuisine is a valuable distraction for Cordell, who still feels uneasy about having left his wife and kids to move in with his supportive lover, Dwayne (Blake Morris) in Memphis.
Helping out as fry crew are two friends: Big Charles (Bjorn DuPaty) and the animated and garrulous Isom (Michael Kevin Darnall). A glide path to hot wing glory seems likely, until the unexpected arrival of Dwayne’s teenage nephew, Everett (Derrick Sanders III), and Everett’s father, TJ (JaBen Early).
Revelations about Everett’s family give “The Hot Wing King” somber, socially resonant depths. But between those serious beats — Broadnax calibrates the tones beautifully — the comedy retains its zest. Here it’s Cordell shifting into mock-grandiloquent mode to raise his helpers’ morale. There it’s Isom reveling in double entendres and other conversational ebullience. “I can smell shade a mile away — I’m a walking umbrella,” Isom crows when he suspects his friends of dissing him behind his back.
Broadnax, who staged the play’s 2020 world premiere in New York, has assembled a fabulous cast for this version. Just to single out two performances: Marable notably fuses a lost-soul wistfulness into Cordell’s verve, and Morris expertly channels Dwayne’s energy, misgivings and charm.
Set designer Michael Carnahan’s detailed impression of a Memphis home helps round out our understanding of the characters’ situations. Amy Kellett designed the props, of which one — a container said to hold a virulently spicy ingredient — functions conspicuously as a Scoville-scale equivalent to the gun in Chekhov’s famous playwriting principle.
A final reveal in the visual design helps gives the story pleasant closure. Such an assist is almost necessary because the characters in “The Hot Wing King” hardly seem inclined to wrap up their banter. They might just hang out all night and riff.
The Hot Wing King, by Katori Hall. Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III; costume design, Ivania Stack; lighting, Alan C. Edwards; sound, Curtis Craig. About 2½ hours. $65 - $95. Through July 31 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. studiotheatre.org.