Even before the action begins in the Live Arts production of Morris Panych’s The Dishwashers, the stage comes alive with the hissing steam of an industrial dishwashing machine. Water drips in torturously irregular intervals from a “hot sprayer” hanging like a snake over a large sink apparatus. The set fills with the white noise of disembodied bustle and nervous chatter of unseen diners. It doesn’t take a huge imaginative leap to catch a whiff of Sartrean hopelessness in this dingy underworld. Indeed, the word “no” wouldn’t have been out of place above the glowing red exit signs.
Help wanted: The Dishwashers features (left to right) Danny Murphy, Timothy L. McNamara and Brodrick Jones.
This may not be the nondescript waiting room of No Exit. But it’s a kind of hell for the guileless Emmett, an “educated man” who once counted himself among the wealthy diners “upstairs.” His precipitous fall from the graceless world of high finance has taken him so far down the socio-economic ladder that he’s now confronted with the incomprehensible: a “shit job” he may not be fit for, according to Dressler, a beefy, bossy survivor of decades of dishwashing monotony. “You look like busboy material to me,” says Dressler derisively when he gets his first look at the hapless Emmett.
If Emmett, played with the right touch of anxious dread and repressed fear by a bespectacled Brodrick Jones, is a classic fish out of water, then Danny Murphy’s blustery Dressler is a whale of contradictions, a clowning creature submerged in an ocean of untested ideas. In the tradition of homespun philosophers like Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson, and Glenn Beck, Dressler’s full of false bravado, blind to the ridiculous implications of his rationalizations. “We are the people they don’t ever want to know about,” he boasts, adorning his job description with the euphemism “unseen reliability.” He sports an American flag headband, yet declaims, “Democracy is a lazy bitch who never did a day’s work in her life.” The third stooge in this comedy of unintended errors is Moss, a broken old man who has yet to realize he’s been fired. (Director Amanda McRaven cleverly cements the slapstick nature of Dressler’s dialogue by opening the second half of the play with the physical comedy of a “Glee”-style dance number.) In Timothy J. McNamara’s able hands, Moss stumbles in and out of the drama, blissfully unaware, tongue perpetually jutting out from his lips as if he were trying to taste something that isn’t there, the personification of a senile mind drowning in the shallow end. His epitaph: “He always held up his end.”
All’s well that doesn’t end well in Panych’s timely satire. It’s no surprise when Moss’ will to live gives out—he has no life outside of dishwashing. And, having tasted what Moss never could—a world beyond the dishwashing—Emmett’s refusal to embrace the Dressler fate, a life in which “ambition is a dream you wake up from at the very last minute of your life,” is inevitable. There’s a sly twist at the end that I won’t reveal. But Dressler gets a new “new guy” (Scott Dunn’s Burroughs), and completes the play’s central metaphor. “See this pile of dishes,” he beams at Burroughs, “bigger than both of us…And it always will be.” Yes, life’s an endless stack of dirty dishes.—Matt Ashare