by HAYLEY HUNTLEY
up: “Cod, risotto, risotto.” Jorge swings the plates from the kitchen to the busboys’ table, clinking ceramic dishes on metal. Peter (the unofficial leader of the busboys’ quartet) moves in for the handoff, hoists a full tray over his shoulder, and spins toward the dining room door. (When I worked in a restaurant, you’d yell, “Corner out!” when rounding a bend without view of who might be coming toward you; but this passageway is a door, not a corner, and if you don’t look through the window to see who’s coming the other way, it’s, “First one to the door, wins.”)
This scene emerges midway through Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes (now playing at the Fountain Theatre). It’s the end of a busy night — the last few bars in the opus of a fine dining dinner service. The four busboys (bus-men?) move in fluid rhythm until they’ll be able to clock out and collect shift pay (the wage they earn before tips — the one they won’t actually get this evening, but they don’t know that yet).
We root for a clean finish as Peter moves toward the door. But then! The door swings inward (we’ve seen it do this, it’s a Chekhov’s Gun). Blowing through the door at equal speed and opposite direction of Peter is Pepe, lowest busboy on the totem pole. In an instant, Pepe brakes to a stop and Peter swivels the tray, saving it from falling. The men pause in that slow-motion, hair-raised, floaty moment we find ourselves suspended in when we narrowly avoid disaster. Right then, someone utters an urgent line.
But it’s not an actor, it’s a woman in the audience. She gasps: “Ohmygod.”
It doesn’t sound like much in the writing of it, ohmygod, but try to remember the last thing you saw that made you react vocally, and then try to remember the last time you heard more than a laugh or an “aaw” or maybe a gasp. This “ohmygod” seemed involuntary to me, a totally real release of the tension this audience member had been feeling. Or, at the very least, it made me aware of how tense I’d been feeling as the play developed. And then, like a code breaker with a cypher, I began to notice the tension everywhere: woven into the actors’ performances, embedded in the script, ripped from the (I imagine) analogous lives of real people in the real world. Eureka! The “ohmygod” unlocked a theme.
You can spot tension, tangibly, in the physical set of the kitchen: dishes seem perpetually poised on the brink of slipping, spilling, shattering. Each upturned teacup or knife hanging on a magnetic strip contains the promise of chaos, if the right catalyst comes along. The busboys’ mastery over this workplace gives them a sense of control, a place where their hard work and skills directly correlate to their success — at least until new management threatens that structure.
Then there’s the tension permeating the play’s backdrop: the finicky restaurant industry. If it rains, patrons stay home. In the summer, wealthy patrons migrate to the Hamptons. And any problem the restaurant experiences, the busboys also experience: if it’s a small crowd, a busboy gets sent home without full shift pay. If a patron sends a meal back to the kitchen, the busboy’s the buffer for discontent. If a server is unreliable, the busboys work harder and collect a smaller tip. These four characters absorb the shock from the restaurant’s bumpy ride, not as victims, but as troubleshooters on their toes.
There’s tension braided into the characters’ relationships, too. Their jokes pivot quickly between innocent and antagonistic. One minute they’re expressing solidarity and even friendship; the next they’re reasserting a hierarchy of seniority, race, ethnicity, and machismo. The instability of their jobs undercuts their sense of unity, threatening any alliances they might otherwise lean on with competition and threat of betrayal.
And finally, though we only ever see the characters in the kitchen, we become aware of the constant tension under which they operate in the world at large. These men are low-wage workers, minorities, and (half are) undocumented immigrants. They’re highly vulnerable to unfair hiring practices, unemployment, insufficient housing, police profiling, deportation. They endure indignities with customers, employers, and law enforcement who — according to Peter — all see the busboys as “the kind of people you can do this to ’cause we ain’t gonna do shit back.” The characters also find themselves choosing between their own self-interest and the needs of family members who depend upon them. They live on a tight-wire of low-wage employment, where the relief of a solid place to land inches away as they move toward it.
The play’s tension breeds suspense by assembling the stories of these characters’ lives like Jenga towers, where each building block contains the potential to bring the whole thing down. Known threats to stability include Jorge’s and Pepe’s undocumented immigration status — if you pull that Jenga block, they get deported. But surprising threats pop up, too. In one scene, Peter tells the story of how trying to get home to take his daughter to school resulted in his earning a criminal record. He evaded a clogged subway turnstile — despite having a valid metro pass — to avoid missing an infrequent train home, and when he mocked the MTA officer writing him a ticket, it led to his arrest.
Whalid questions him:
WHALID. Wait but hold up, you said you got a record now –
PETER. Yup –
WHALID. Why’d you plead out? That coulda got dismissed,
where’s the evidence? I mean, they lie like hell, but still, shit can get dismissed, specially if they ain’t show up to court –
PETER. Bail is five hundred dollars.
WHALID. Use a bondsman?
PETER. Ain’t enough, bondsman won’t touch it, can’t make profit–
PETER. And if you don’t got it, you gotta wait in jail until trial –
WHALID. Ok, but then it gets dismissed –
PETER. ‘Your case will be heard Friday.’ In five days. Four of which I’m on the schedule.
WHALID. Oh shit. So you pleaded out.
PETER. What could I do.
The play is full of chain reactions like this one, where a single mistake results in a maddening scarcity of options. If I, the writer of this column, get a ticket, I can pay it. Or I can drive (in my car) to Court to plead not guilty. I can ask my parents questions — they’re lawyers — and any proceedings in a courtroom would be spoken in my native language. I could take myself out afterward to decompress, pay for a beer, and not have to pay for childcare. And in these huge/small ways, my daily mistakes don’t jeopardize my family or security or dreams. My stakes are lower, my Jenga tower is shorter, and I have a lot of help holding it up. Certainly no one is immune to pain or loss, but My Mañana Comes makes clear the correlation between a person’s privilege/power/status and his ability to rebound from mistakes.
Rebounding means there’s an upswing, so for the characters in My Mañana Comes, rebounding looks more like ricocheting. I’m reminded of the book Nickel and Dimed, in which author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich observes the experiences of America’s working class. She writes: “These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment. They are, by almost any standard of subsistence, emergency situations. And that is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans — as a state of emergency.”
To me, the woman in the audience’s “ohmygod” moment was proof that this state of emergency had been translated onto a stage — that we as an audience had witnessed a high stakes, low-income world full of injustice and hazard; where being skillful, smart, and careful won’t make you comfortable, and where one safe passage through a swinging door doesn’t guarantee you the return trip won’t surprise you. And to almost spill that f***ing risotto, considering all that? “Ohmygod” is right.
NOW PLAYING: MY MAÑANA COMES at the Fountain Theatre, through June 26.
Four busboys in the kitchen of an upscale restaurant learn the hard way how to deal with pay cuts that could jeopardize their dreams for a better life, their dignity and their friendship.