If the new manager of a posh, Madison Avenue restaurant could watch his busboys work in the “back of the house” he’d never cut their “shift pay.” Or would only do it to save his job. Peter, Jorge, Whalid, and Pepe move as if choreographed, bombing through double doors carrying plates of food, chopping limes, folding napkins, taking inventory, even knowing how to resurrect the coffee machine when it goes on the blink.
We first see them just after work. They must be Busboy’s All-Stars, one claims. Total pros. Nothing hit the floor all night. The tips should be much more than the $25.00 they make per shift. But nowhere near a living wage.
Elizabeth Irwin takes a behind-the-scenes look at workers either ignored or yelled at the instant they make a mistake. She doesn’t delve into statistics (but I will: almost one out of every five working Americans has only a part-time job; need more? Read “The Rise of the Working Poor,” chapter 14 of Robert B. Reich’s recent Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few). Instead she gives voice to the underclass: dreams and hardships a CEO couldn’t comprehend.
The quartet makes for a tidy cross-section (the characters often function as examples of a type): Peter’s an African-American from Harlem; Jorge and Pepe are from Mexico; Whalid’s a Latino from the Bronx. Peter and Jorge are married with children. Their frugality differs from Pepe and Whalid’s craving for clubs and high-buck sneakers.
Alliances differ depending on the subject: when it comes to work, Jorge and Peter are a team (Peter could run the entire restaurant if he didn’t have to socialize with the patrons). Jorge and Pepe have a cloud over their heads: they are undocumented immigrants. Jorge’s saving to move back to Puebla; Pepe’s lured by bling.
They pepper their talk with racist banter. Sounds casual, part of the routine. But when changes come to the restaurant, a new alliance forms: the talk wasn’t just banter. My Manana Comes flips 180 degrees, from often entertaining sociology to high drama and a bitter truth.
The play starts with a dare: no one “dropped a pork chop” in the previous shift. Which means the Rep’s four actors must be at the top of their game. Credit to director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg: her cast makes death-defying moves, zipping past, ducking under each other, with plate-dropping potential. A voiceless scene flows like a syncopated dance. Beautifully done.
The script often suggests, rather than develops characters (they are as much part of a pattern as they are individuals). The actors fill in most of the gaps. Eldred Utomi heads the group as alert, garrulous, Peter — and could head the next U.S. Olympic table-leaping team. Jorge E. Rodriguez gives Jorge a quiet strength, Jose Martinez does what he can with underwritten Pepe, and Spencer Smith gets laughs for Whalid’s snap gestures.
Brian Redfern’s micro-realistic set fascinates for its detail (big freezers, double doors with circular windows, myriad restaurant stuff) and because it’s at once very old — greasy red brick walls — yet very clean, thanks to the officious workers.
Anastasia Pautova’s costumes speak volumes about how money gets spent (expensive red and white Nikes) and how the gray uniforms the workers wear with pride create a seemingly invincible bond.