In The Dishwashers, a novice college dropout joins a hardworking team of lifers in the most unpleasant aspect of the restaurant business. Together they clear leftovers off plates and blast away encrusted creams and sauces with industrial-strength streams of hot water, all under the invasive supervision of a seasoned ringleader. Their conflicting approaches to the mindless and routine work is at first hilarious and then thought-provoking, as management politics and pecking order get questioned not only on the job, but in life.
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
Morris Panych’s latest play exposes the unsightly innerworkings of a fine-tuned eatery through three staff members the public rarely sees in action: The Dishwashers. A bum market has cost Emmett (Jay Stratton) his fortune, forcing him to take on the unlikely occupation of a dishwasher for one of the prestigious restaurants he once patronized. Joined by delusional soap-scrubbin’ veteran Moss (John Shuman) and the unfazed commanding chief Dressler (Tim Donoghue), Emmett soon learns about the tight political ties that compose his new working conditions. None of his stock trading has prepared him for the job orientation he undergoes in his basement banishment, and although his morals and work ethic do not turn a complete 180, his subtle and idealistic reactions are enough of a change to create a genuine sense of morality. Dressler’s dry, subtle wit balances out this sentiment, especially with Donoghue’s point-blank delivery. He constantly rebuffs Emmett’s earnestness to change the way things are, and this evenhanded outlook reveals his tenure in the trade. Together Stratton and Donoghue create both great comedy and sobering drama, and their believable chemistry makes each scene achingly realistic.
The central plot (and spotlight performance) rests with Tim Donoghue’s genius portrayal of the straight man Dressler. His crusty cynicism makes the script come alive with a one-two comic timing usually found only in duo acts. He sets up his own jokes while delivering the last word, each impeccably inserted comment a testament to his dry wit and hardened experience as a lifer. With the stellar support of costar John Shuman as Moss, these two men provide an eye-opening look into a life spent in black smocks and rubber gloves. At first they shock Emmett with their steadfast commitment to such an unglamorous profession, working together with such practiced precision that the handing off and rinsing of plates looks machinelike, a well-executed assembly line. They realized long ago that scrubbing plates, glasses, and flatware until shine-worthy enough to be sent back upstairs is very dirty work. They don’t complain, and underneath their gruff professionalism tenderness can be found. As the slightly delusional and harmless elderly employee, Shuman sleeps with his eyes open and forgets whether or not he has gotten paid this week. Dressler knows this, and makes sure he leaves with his money or takes a cigarette break, revealing these characters to once again be adorable and pitiable at the same time.
As for Emmett, he learns to accept his new line of work, a natural transformation that truly captivates the audience. We see him progress from an oblivious preppy white-collar kid to a hardworking drone who ultimately accepts his fate. When he leaves to pursue other arenas, he realizes the value of menial labor, like the industrial-strength dishwashing solution his hands have been soaking in, doesn’t completely dissolve from his fingertips. The final scene shows him returning one evening for a gratuitous, hilariously awkward faceoff with Dressler. While Stratton’s performance is so optimistic at times it borders an ill-fitting campiness, it remains an undisruptive undercurrent, overshadowed by Dressler’s blunt realism.
The candid commentary between Moss and Dressler remains refreshing and never tires, for example. Panych writes with Beckettian grace: despite being stuck in the same kitchen, day in and day out, the conversations, like the setting, are timeless and universal. The characters also have a long history of working together, adding to the sense of monotony and futility. Are the issues they mull over from yesterday or five years ago? Their induced loneliness from the nature of their work and in their personal lives also provides a poignant sense of the human condition. Like Beckett’s depiction of society through a minimal cast and setting, Panych has created a microcosm out of the world of cleanliness, and the high stakes of perfecting a craft rooted in mindless anonymity – after all, nobody notices the plates they eat off in a restaurant unless they come chipped or speckled.
Set designer Charlie Corcoran continues this theme of anonymity through an arrangement of grays in the floors, walls, and furniture. Equally daunting are the stacked boxes of “Sudz-O” trailing the stage’s perimeter, indicating the neverending routine of washing and rinsing. The play’s lighting, designed by Jill Nagle, while pretty standard throughout each scene, changes to startling geometric shadows during silent interludes where the cast scrapes dishes or rinses glasses, creating a prisonlike sense of no escape. Panych’s sardonic humor and his eye for the human condition clean the plate for quality theater with The Diswhashers. Audiences may no longer have the budget for foie gras, artichokes and crème brulée before the curtain, but know the gamut well enough to recognize (and even enjoy) the mockery. The Dishwashers is thorough and satisfying, with the moral that hindsight truly is 20/20, especially when looking at one’s own reflection in a bone-white china charger plate.-------------------------------------------
The Dishwashers (Two hours; one 15-minute intermission)
59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street)
Tickets (www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200): $35
Performances (through 6/7): Tues. 7:15pm; Weds.-Fris. 8:15pm; Sats. 2:15pm, 8:15pm; Suns. 3:15pm