The Dishwashers by Morris Panych. Directed by Byam Stevens.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
John Shuman, Jay Stratton and Tim Donogue; photo: Rick Teller
"Their very first impression....my handiwork."
An awful thing happens to me, the critic, when a play Iím watching calls up memories of other plays Iíve seen and I canít get those images out of my head. More than forty years ago I saw Arnold Weskerís play "The Kitchen" and the new play at the Chester Theatre Companyís summer stage reminds me too much of the earlier experience. Not that they are the same play. Not at all. Yet there is something in the new one that makes me think of the older one. Incessantly.
Weskerís play is set in the basement of a restaurant. Panychís play is set in that same basement, although his is a restricted space - only dishwashers allowed. Wesker introduces us to the denizens of the place, waiters and waitresses, cooks, apprentices, dishwashers, busboys and so on. In Panychís play there are only four characters, each one of them chained to the exact same work - washing up, making bright the crockery of this place. While Weskerís play deals with the frustrations of romance, with both participants on stage, Panych uses the romance of one of his characters to strengthen that characterís need to restart his life on a different level.
The plays arenít the same. No principal elements coincide, and yet the drama of life, the microcosm presented in both plays sets off reverberations I canít avoid.
Both plays take on a world apart from our own and in doing so deal with the world we inhabit. Politics intrudes on the storyline. Motivations drive participants to madness, and in The Dishwashers to death. Oh, and both are comedies - in their way.
Emmett comes to work in this place, so foreign to his nature and his background, after speculation drives him to penury. He is trained for his new station in life by Dressler, a career dishwasher and paired with a long-time worker named Moss. Moss is the oldest man in the room, practically a century of work behind him. He wins a prize somewhere along the line and it is a doozy - an enema. What he doesnít know, because Dressler never tells him, is that he has been fired from the only job he has ever held. Dressler withholds this information and when Emmett inadvertently blurts it out, Moss does the only thing he can think of doing - he dies.
The play continues to reveal Dresslerís world and Emmettís need to change that world until Emmett pulls himself together and returns to the world upstairs, to the elegant restaurant he patronized in better times. That world is where he belongs, he finds, and not the world below where the menial becomes the message.
Tim Donoghue plays Dressler and Jay Stratton plays Emmett in this production in the Pioneer Valley. Donoghue has a strong-arm technique to his acting that gives him the edge over his co-players in this work. He seems to be able to manipulate the moment to attract attention to himself. Perhaps this is inherent in the writing, but it would seem to be more the man than the character who attracts attention here. His voice and his mannerisms are just right for Dressler. His attention to the details of his characterís work, even when he tells conflicting stories about himself only minutes apart, make it all seem real and just a bit threatening.
Emmett is a tall weakling with a dark side that only comes out in brief spurts. This character refuses to be fully aware of the oddness of his situation until he can no longer avoid the issue. Stratton gives a strength to this odd reality. He plays with an honesty that is almost startling at times. When Emmett tries to organize the dishwashers, for example, Stratton alters his voice, its pitch darkening and lowering, becoming more assertive and male. In conflict with the man who wonít use his name because that would be a mark of respect that hasnít been earned, Strattonís Emmett continues undeterred by such minor slights. This determination, especially in an outfit provided by the restaurant which is completely unsuitable to him, is visible in both body language and facial gestures. This pairing of players is almost magical.
Moss is played by John Shuman. The actorís style is as quirky as his character. His voice is jarring and his visage is alarming. Dressed in holiday hats he is a pitiful sight, a pitiable creature. Shuman reduces Moss to an almost animal state, a representative one, a less-than-human image. Even so, there is pity felt for the man he plays. Shuman allows us to feel, oddly, that Moss has value even when we know he does not.
Jeff Vatore, the fourth actor in the play, is a late arrival and brings a different look at the men who take on this life-work. He is very good, but his time is so short that he does not leave the depth of impression that his cohorts do.
Director Byam Stevens has done a remarkable job with this play. It is not a guaranteed audience pleaser and, indeed, one man did walk out during the first act, never to return. Immediately to his left, across the aisle, was an entire row of people roaring with laughter and in front of them sat a couple who continually shook their heads and laughed politely. This show, clearly, works on different levels for different folks. Stevens has given his cast the chance to present that rarity, the human scale running the gamut from A to Z in a four-character play in which little of importance ever happens. Stevens gives us the opportunity to understand each of these men through the tiny differences he helps them establish, things we can see as well as hear.
The cast is trapped in the basement washing room designed by Charles Corcoran, wearing the odd clothing created by Arthur Oliver. The images these men give us work to the advantage of the play even if we donít quite believe that room or clothing exists in any real place. Like the people in Weskerís play the trappings of their limited success here are evident in the downstairs squalor of the upscale rooms above.
Is this any way to spend an evening? No two people will give you the same answer to that question, I am sure. So, am I glad I went to see this play? I am. Did I laugh? I did. Was I moved? Not clearly. Would I do this again? Iím just not sure. Is this helpful? Probably not, but it was the kind of interesting theater experience that prompted me to remember other evenings without weighing them against this one. It just made me remember and I think thatís a good thing.
Seen one performance prior to opening night.
The Dishwashers plays at the Chester Theater through August 10. Tickets are $24.50 - $29.50. For schedules and tickets call the box office at 413-354-7771 or find them online at www.chestertheatre.org.
This theater has a new policy: Buy a ticket and if you want to see the show again, you can have another ticket free. The idea behind this is that actors change and grow and an audience might want to see how the characters develop over the course of a run. Of course, you can also convince another friend to join you and buy a ticket. And why not!