Friday, November 6, 2015

Forced To Provide Service With A Smile

Not everyone has a desk job. Some people wait tables, clean bathrooms, work as nannies, or push drink carts through an airliner's passenger cabin. Others may be adjunct professors, nurses, bus drivers, or garbagemen. Each and every service job is accompanied by occupational hazards that the general public blithely ignores.

And yet, the working class provides plenty of material for playwrights and screenwriters. From bus drivers like Ralph Kramden (The Honeymooners) to teachers like Jean Brodie (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie); candy stripers, blue collar (and no collar) workers find a place in our culture. Bay area audiences recently attended the American premiere of Penelope Skinner's dramedy, Fred's Diner, at the Magic Theatre and Marisa Wegrzyn's poignant look at exhausted flight attendants in the Aurora Theatre Company's production of Mud Blue Sky.

Several years ago, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley staged Joan Holden's adaptation of Barbara Ehrenreich’s non-fiction best seller entitled Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. Earlier this year, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman won nearly $3 million in wage theft judgments against franchisees of Papa John's Pizza.

In 1997, Cy Coleman's gritty musical about the pimps and whores in Times Square (The Life) took a more realistic view of the career challenges facing some of America's working women. Several months ago the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, staged the world premiere of a musical adaptation of Adrienne Shelley's 2007 film, Waitress (which is headed for the Great White Way next spring).

Meanwhile, as the race for the 2016 Presidential election heats up, Republicans have been taking lots of swipes at "the other" -- African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, and members of the LGBT community -- in an effort to keep their ideology of white supremacy alive on the political equivalent of a ventilator. As much as Donald Trump and his ilk desire to send all of America's undocumented immigrants back where they came from, the logistics of such a mass expulsion border on the absurd.

Needless to say, millions of Americans have taken offense at the Donald's crude race-baiting tactics. Some have found new outlets for expressing their rage against Trump's machine:

Bay area audiences were recently given a chance to experience two dramas about unheralded workers in the so-called "service industry." One was a forgotten musical that did not stand up well against the test of time; the other was focused on a small group of minority restaurant workers threatened with a perverse form of wage theft by their penny-pinching employer.

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Just as every character has a backstory, every restaurant that is not a fast food operation is usually divided into the front of the house (where customers eat, drink, and are supposedly kept merry) and the back of the house (where food is prepared, dishes are washed, and workers share the challenges they face in their daily lives). In Elizabeth Irwin's play, My Mañana Comes, the action takes place in the back rooms of a popular restaurant located just a few blocks from the flagship Bloomingdale's store in Manhattan. This is the kind of restaurant whose revenue takes a sharp drop during the summer months when its usual clientele heads for The Hamptons. The disparity between the earnings of its customers and those of its busboys offers a cruel demonstration of the priorities important to the privileged class as opposed to those who live much closer to the poverty line.

The Marin Theatre Company is currently presenting Elizabeth Irwin's play in a production directed by Kirsten Brandt. Although the restaurant's owner, chef, waiters, and other front of the house staff are never seen, their power over the four busboys is inescapable. Although they have vastly different personalities, the two senior busboys know who they are, what to expect from their jobs, and what needs to get done in order to keep the restaurant functioning smoothly.

Shaun Patrick Tubbs (Peter) and Eric Avilés (Jorge) in a
scene from My Mañana Comes (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Peter (Shaun Patrick Tubbs) is an African-American man who is a bit of a control freak. He likes to be ready with the solution to any customer's request before that customer can even finish getting the words out of his mouth. Peter also has the closest rapport of all the busboys with the restaurant's owner.  As a result, the other busboys look to him as their leader.

Keenly aware of the cost of living, Peter takes no pleasure in being ticketed for jumping a turnstile in order to catch a late night subway train or in learning that his wife has had a fight with her mother (which could severely impact his family's cash flow if they have to pay for childcare). Even something as simple as taking time off to see his daughter's recital at school has to be assessed on a cost basis.

Eric Avilés is Jorge in My Mañana Comes
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Jorge (Eric Avilés) has been working at the restaurant for four years, quietly saving money to send home to his family back home in Puebla to pay for a two-story house in which they can all live together. In addition to taking home leftover food every night that he can eat the following morning, Jorge tries to explain to his younger comrades that if they fritter away all their money on booze, designer name sneakers, and clubbing, they'll never be able to support themselves.

Carlos Jose Gonzalez Morales is Pepe in
My Mañana Comes (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Pepe (Carlos Jose Gonzalez Morales) is the newest employee as well as being a new arrival to the United States from Jaurez. Eager to work any extra shifts that are available, Pepe's impulsive purchases sabotage any chance of his saving the money he needs to bring his brother into the country. Not as bright or skilled as his co-workers, Pepe is slow in finishing his prep work, occasionally drops the silverware, and quick to push Peter's buttons with his lack of efficiency. Whether or not he is an undocumented immigrant is never really made clear, but Pepe knows enough to avoid any confrontation with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or, as it is more commonly known to Hispanics, La Migra. Pepe has been living in a tiny apartment whose numerous inhabitants pay by the day to sleep in a bed shared with those who are working other shifts.

Shaun Patrick Tubbs (Peter) and Caleb Cabrera (Whalid) in a
scene from My Mañana Comes (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Whalid (Caleb Cabrera) is a bit of a conundrum. Having been born in the United States to Mexican-American parents, he is a third-generation American citizen who has the security of living at home until he can afford to move into a place of his own. Compared to his co-workers, Whalid's busboy job is merely a stepping stone to possibly studying to become an EMT (his latest fantasy) and graduating to a job that provides employment benefits. Oddly enough, he grew up up thinking he was Puerto Rican.

The conflict driving Irwin's plot involves the restaurant's perilous cash flow and the owner's decision to stop paying his busboys their basic shift pay. How each of the busboys reacts to this financial setback depends on their citizenship, their financial desperation, and leads to a startling (and sudden) dénouement. In his note from the artistic director, Jasson Minadakis explains that:
"When I pick the plays for our season, one of my most important criteria is a story I have not heard before (and preferably the story of people I have never before seen onstage). I also look for plays that show me something I see every day but that ask me to view it through new eyes and change my perspective; to walk through the world in another person’s shoes -- someone on a very different journey. I have been shocked and dismayed by the lack of intelligent and sophisticated discourse in the national conversation surrounding immigration. I rarely talk with anyone who is not battling conflicting emotions on this subject and feel that we are not being led towards a sensible and empathetic public debate.

All too often, onstage voices like those of Jorge, Peter, Pepe, and Whalid are mute, characters from their backgrounds or in their professions who are merely serving food and drink or cleaning up the remnants, silently moving from the wings to the tables without comment. My Mañana Comes brings a human element to both sides of this debate and perhaps offers a chance for a more compassionate discussion as opposed to one based in fear. I have never seen a play focus on young men like these."
Working on a unit set by Sean Fanning, Kirsten Brandt's direction tries to use the body language of her busboys as a way of framing their constant battle between the tedium and anxiety they experience during any given shift. With strong work by Lynne Soffer as a dialect coach, the strangest part of the evening is realizing that the four-man ensemble is a lot stronger than Irwin's script.

Part of the problem comes from the passages spoken in Spanish by the three Mexican-American busboys. Although one long and critical stretch of dialogue between Jorge and Pepe was completely lost on much of the audience on opening night, there's a simple physical solution which could make Irwin's play far more stageworthy: the use of surtitles like the ones used by most opera companies (as well as in the musical adaptation of Once).

Performances of My Mañana Comes continue at the Marin Theatre Company through November 22 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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For the first half of the 20th century, most travel between Europe and the United States took place aboard ocean liners.

By 1958, when the de Havilland Comet, Boeing 707, and DC-8 began offering regularly scheduled transatlantic jet service (cutting the travel time from five days to between 9-12 hours), ocean liners were start to be converted for the cruise trade. One of the few ships known for its lengthy "around the world" cruises was Cunard's beloved RMS Caronia, fondly nicknamed "The Green Goddess."

There can be little doubt that the popular Cunarder inspired Noel Coward's 1961 musical, Sail Away, which opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on October 3, 1961 and ran for 167 performances with Elaine Stritch starring as Mimi Paragon, the cruise director aboard the S.S. Coronia (a fictional British ship catering to American tourists).

The Playbill for the original Broadway production
of Noel Coward's Sail Away (starring Elaine Stritch)

Coward's next-to-last musical, Sail Away was one several Broadway shows inspired by the recent phenomenon of Americans traveling abroad.

Whereas most Americans were eager to experience jet travel, Sail Away stuck with the crowd that embraced Cunard's slogan: "Getting there is half the fun." Its title song appealed to those looking for a leisurely escape from the disappointments and frustrations of their daily lives.

While Coward's piercing wit and fearsome vocabulary were on display in two cleverly-designed songs -- "The Passenger's Always Right" (sung by Joe and the ship's stewards) and "The Customer's Always Right" (sung by Ali and his fellow Arab souvenir vendors on shore) -- what saved the show was Elaine Stritch's formidable ability to put a musical number over with songs like "Useful Phrases," "Something Very Strange," and Mimi's 11 o'clock world-weary showstopper, "Why Do The Wrong People Travel?"

San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon opened its 2015-2016 season with a production of Sail Away directed by the company's artistic director, Greg MacKellan. With the talented Allison F. Rich starring as Mimi Paragon, the cast included Darlene Popovic as Elinor Spencer-Bollard (a romance novelist in dire need of a Dictaphone) and Lucinda Hitchcock-Cone as Evelyn Van Mier (a stuffy old prude who can't accept the fact that her little boy is a grown man.

Allison F. Rich stars as cruise director Mimi Paragon
in Noel Coward's Sail Away (Photo by: David Allen) 

Among the more obnoxious passengers aboard the S.S. Coronia were Jordan Martin as Alvin Lush (a hyperactive 11-year-old brat quite skilled at driving adults crazy), Ashley Garlick as his over-indulgent mother, as well as Katherine Cooper as Mamie Candijack (an American boor) and Davern Wright as her utterly bored husband, Edgar. The plot of Sail Away also includes two parallel romances.
  • Elinor Spencer-Bollard's adopted niece, Nancy Foyle (Khalia Davis), proves to be incapable of taking dictation from the novelist because she is easily distracted by the advances of young Barnaby Slade (Nathaniel Rothrock).
  • A divorced woman who had a horrible marriage, the cynical Mimi ends up being courted by a the handsome Johnny Van Mier (Lucas Coleman), who would gladly throw his nagging mother overboard if given the opportunity to relieve Mimi of her single status.
Mimi Paragon (Allison F. Rich) plays hard to get with  Johnny
Van Mier (Lucas Coleman) in Sail Away (Photo by: David Allen) 

Although eagerly anticipated, Sail Away had a storm-tossed voyage to Broadway. Coward originally conceived the story as a movie in which he would star alongside Marlene Dietrich. During its out-of-town tryout phase, a subsidiary role written for an operatic soprano was cut from the show and all of Jean Fenn's material was given to Elaine Stritch, thus positioning Mimi as a tough, sarcastic broad whose inner beauty might bloom if infused with the love of a young, hot, and very wealthy stud.

Despite Dave Dobrusky's musical direction, 42nd Street Moon's production of Sail Away served to expose the many weaknesses of the show's book and Coward's surprisingly second-rate score. The best efforts of Allison F. Rich (an extremely talented performer) to portray Mimi as a sassy, yet sympathetic character proved unsuccessful as Coward's script didn't help her very much. Lucas Coleman's Johnny was likewise handsome, winsome, and a bit insipid.

While many theatregoers still harbor fond memories of Stritch's performance, I suspect the reason Sail Away became a "lost musical" is because it's a weak show that suffered a constant string of bad luck while undergoing a frantic revision process en route to Broadway. Less than two weeks after Coward's new musical opened in New York, critics went wild over Frank Loesser's new show, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which opened at the 46th Street Theatre on October 14, 1961, won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, took home seven Tony Awards, and ran for 1,417 performances.

Faced with stiff box office competition from the very model of a modern major musical, Coward's show (which was sarcastically labeled by one critic as the :Best New Musical of 1936") sailed away toward the horizon with far less glory than the setting sun.

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