The workplace, where so many of us spend so much time, offers a rich trove of subjects for playwrights eager to move away from the dysfunctional family. As "The Office" suggested on TV, even the most pedestrian employee breakroom can roil with enough intrigue and folly to make the House of Borgia look tame.
The trick is deciding how much actual work to include in a workplace drama. You want just enough detail to give the plot an authentic flavor, but not so much that you inadvertently create a training demo.
Elizabeth Irwin's "My Mañana Comes," in its world premiere at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, is set in the kitchen of an upscale Manhattan restaurant, where four busboys rush about doing the repetitive and seemingly trivial tasks -- filling breadbaskets, slicing fruit, rolling silverware into napkins, garnishing entrees -- for an unseen dining room.
For the Record
May 4, 7:01 p.m.: This review mischaractized the production as a world premiere. The Fountain is presenting the Los Angeles premiere of the play.
Peter (Lawrence Stallings) is the unofficial leader, an ambitious man with a young daughter at home and a passion for order. Peter has worked for years with the more reserved Jorge (Richard Azurdia), who lives in extreme deprivation, saving nearly every penny he earns to build his family a house back in Mexico.
Although Peter is fond of Jorge, he's not above mocking him for his thrift, with the eager participation of the cavalier, flippant Whalid (Peter Pasco). And all three men make fun of Pepe (Pablo Castelblanco), the newest to cross the border, who is still wide-eyed and struggling with English.
Peter and Whalid are American citizens, Jorge and Pepe are not, but they are a team, working together like parts of a machine on Michael Navarro's jewel of a kitchen set. They're engaging performers, and director Armando Molina choreographs their dance with a chaotic harmony that, along with Irwin's sharply observed banter, conveys a strong bond. They may trash-talk one another, but at the end of the day, each has the others' backs.
At least until management starts cutting their pay.
Over the course of a sultry summer's brunch and dinner shifts, tension builds -- slowly, it must be said. At times all forward momentum seems to get lost in busboy business. The cast and crew have reproduced the atmosphere of a restaurant kitchen with meticulous care, but the audience may not always find the outcome so engrossing. (Work is often boring.)
But when the plot finally does kick in, with an abrupt, heartbreaking twist, the time we've spent getting to know these men pays off. The performances turn what might otherwise seem a preachy and schematic problem play into a nuanced exploration of the limits of human compassion in desperate times.
"My Mañana Comes," Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Mondays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 26. $15-$34.95. (323) 663-1525 or www.fountaintheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
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