nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 30, 2006
Turning Tables is a total charmer; it's as delicious as dinner at your favorite eatery, and nourishing too.
I bring up the (admittedly lame) restaurant metaphor because Turning Tables not only takes place in restaurants—it owes its existence to them. The five talented writer/performers who created and now star in this play are all actors who have paid their dues bussing tables, serving customers, and/or dispensing beverages from behind a bar. They've given us a smart, funny, and insightful slice of life—or, more accurately, five slices—in this innovative, well-produced show, making for an auspicious debut for their company, the aptly named Coffee Cup (a theatre co.).
Turning Tables tells five stories about life behind the apron. The acting is sharp, the writing is clever and vivid, the staging (by director Gita Reddy) and production values are terrific. But the best thing about this show is the way its creators have structured it (and here's a lesson for anybody putting together an evening of short plays!): rather than array their five tales linearly, one after another, the Coffee Cup folks have spliced them together into a seamless, longer narrative—so we get three snack-sized helpings of each of these one-act plays, buffet-style, rather than having to digest one course after another. Very smart.
Now let me tell you something about the plays themselves. One is about an ambitious young woman named Rosie who comes to the Big Apple full of dreams; will she be able to achieve them while working at a restaurant where her regular customers are a pair of demanding old ladies? Another is centered around Richie, the perennial "new guy" whose perspective changes when he comes up against a "new gal" in his current job. Then there's the one about Max, who thought he wanted to work in restaurants to be able to observe the human comedy parading out before him. Molly, adjusting to a new place of employment, has nightmares about her waitressing job. And finally, there's the unnamed server who goes head-to-head with the No-Butter Lady in a battle of wills that's hilarious and authentic.
Each of the stories features one of Turning Tables' actor-writers (Ishah Jannsen-Faith is Rosie, Michael Ferrell is Richie, Phil Vos is Max, Hemmendy Nelson is Molly, and Jack McGowan is the unnamed Waiter), with the other four filling out the rest of the required parts. The multi-casting is handled ingeniously, as are the transitions from one tale to another, and the scene and costume changes. The actors are great in their "own" stories and even better than that in their cameos in the others: Jannsen-Faith is brilliant as the horribly thoughtless No-Butter Lady (and the fact that she's always seated with her back to the audience makes this performance all the more impressive); Ferrell is a hoot as the kindlier of Rosie's two old lady customers; Vos is very funny as a blowhard co-worker at Richie's restaurant; Nelson shows her range playing a sensibly good-natured young waitress in Richie's story and a wizened old-school waiter in Rosie's; and McGowan is splendid as a self-important head waiter and Richie's nebbishy rival.
The writing here is very good, with plenty of well-earned laughs throughout. But these are not merely blackout sketches about how put-upon waiters and waitresses are: they're all real plays, brimming with humanity as they explore the ways that we objectify strangers in our day-to-day interactions. Life pushes us sometimes to not look others in the eye, let alone look deeper. Turning Tables reminds us that we're all in this together, whichever side of the table we happen to occupy at the moment, and that's a lesson well worth being reminded of.