nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
May 12, 2009
In The Dishwashers, an existential play by Morris Panych, ambition and hope serve only to reinforce bad luck. According to the play's anti-hero, it is much wiser to scratch all goals, any personal desires, and live only for the responsibilities of the here and now. This gives the present purpose, and makes every task important enough to want to do it well. Panych takes this philosophy, adds a considerable amount of humor salted with not-too-far-fetched wretched circumstances, and comes up with an absurdist drama that will stimulate thought.
In the play, a young, ambitious man named Emmett reports for duty as the new dishwasher at an upscale restaurant, where he has previously been a patron. The grimy basement is the next step down in Emmett's rapid descent: loss of a mega-bucks job, a trouncing of his substantial net worth, and a broken engagement. He is greeted by Dressler, a career employee who is dedicated to his job and unimpressed with the new guy's moneyed background. Moss, an old cancer-ridden has-been, hangs on to his job with the protection of Dressler, although dishwashing at this restaurant is really only a two-man operation.
The Dishwashers is a play of words, ideas, and associations. Panych introduces themes such as man's place in society; man's humanity or inhumanity to his fellow man; self-respect—who gets and who doesn't; the work ethic. Panych touches these topics through Dressler, a territorial lion played by Tim Donoghue, who protects his self-esteem by giving his job dignity and by trying to train Emmett to focus on the here and now. He says, "It starts with us, down here, with us, new guy. We're the vanguard; the front line." Interspersed we see limited relationships build as they toast with champagne left from a patron's dirty flute, and as they coordinate their limited duties of washing, stacking, and emptying the dumb waiter. Dressler intersperses his lectures with unexpected zingers, and it is up to the audience to determine how funny they are. The mix is at times hilarious, sometimes sobering. There is a fine monologue by Dressler describing in vivid detail the tables set in all the clean finery. He ends it with:
DRESSLER: ...When people pass by [the window], that's what they see; their very first impression – my handiwork. I was nothing but a prisoner before I came here.
EMMETT: In what sense?
At times, the one-liners seem to stop conversation, but Dressler plows ahead. He moves from subject to subject, assured of what he knows and uninterested in anything outside his narrow periphery. Donoghue gives us a no-nonsense, focused Dressler. John Schuman delivers a fine counterpoint in his role as Moss. Moss is wracked with disease. He wheezes, coughs, and occasionally hallucinates, and Schuman packages him as every restaurant patron's nightmare. Jay Stratton's Emmett looks the part, but doesn't convince as a "master of the universe." Perhaps, it is because the character is out of his element as a dishwasher; still, even as the character organizes a union and plans to submit grievances to management, Stratton seems less than in command. Michael J. Fulvio fills out the cast as Burroughs, another new employee, who demonstrates in a few minutes what Dressler wants from his dishwashers.
Panych writes more in paragraphs than in dialogue. And most of the monologues go to Dressler, who pontificates on one topic or another throughout. But it is hard to get to know him. Director Byam Stevens has ample opportunity to give texture and depth to this character, especially in his disdain toward Emmett and the rich patrons eating off his plates, and again when Dressler demonstrates humanity toward Moss. But, he remains one-dimensional. However, Stevens hastens the pace and shows ingenuity in the sequences showing the dishwashers' assembly line.
Charlie Corcoran's set is aptly dingy. One prop puzzled me. I wondered why the dishwashers scraped the dishes with a rubber spatula rather than with a bristle brush. Arthur Oliver's heavy leather aprons and gloves work well as costumes, but the characters' white uniforms seem far too filthy for a restaurant of this caliber. Jill Nagle shows thoughtfulness in her lighting, particularly the spot on the stairs demonstrating that all hope lies above ground-level. Tom Shread's dripping water and other sound effects add to the desired atmosphere.
There is very little action in The Dishwashers. However, the concepts and the humor keep it going. Not all of the humor is laugh-out-loud-funny, but it does prevent the play from becoming preachy or maudlin. For me, the dramatic elements hit home long after the lights went down at the end of Act II. I like a thought-provoking play, and this one has some very strong elements.