Harry Nelken and Tom Anniko in "The Dishwashers" (Bruce Monk)
There's plenty of great wordplay in Panych's quick-witted dialogue, and Metcalfe paces it smartly.
—Joff Schmidt, theatre reviewer
Prairie Theatre Exchange bills its latest production, The Dishwashers, as "a comedy for recessionary times." Robert Metcalfe's production certainly hits the "comedy" note, but doesn't quite capitalize on The Dishwashers' potential as a commentary on the times in which we live.
What's perhaps most remarkable about this 2005 play by Governor General's Award-winner Morris Panych is that it pre-dates the economic downturn North America is still mired in. The story follows Emmett (Rylan Wilkie), a well-heeled man who finds himself working in the subterranean dishpit of the upscale restaurant where he dined in better times. Curiously, Panych doesn't delve into what led to Emmett's descent. The point seems to be that the details are inconsequential, and what matters is how we deal with a reversal of fortunes.
Emmett's guide to his new role is Dressler (Tom Anniko), a lifer in the dishpit who likes to dispense his own brand of wisdom. Some of it is less than golden. ("Parmesan," he sneers, pointing at a plate. "Get to know your enemy.") But before long, Dressler begins to present a credible counterpoint to Emmett, who longs to return upstairs. Dressler, by contrast, sees a certain nobility in resigning himself to the unglamorous job. "Work, that's all there is," he tells Emmett. "Work. Death. The rest is a detour."
The biggest problem with this production of The Dishwashers is in the approach to Emmett. Whether or not we agree with him, or even like him, we should still invest ourselves in his efforts to escape the pit, and in his philosophical battle with Dressler. But here, we never really get a sense of who Emmett is, and so never really care about him that much.
While he claims at one point to be glad that he's lost his money, since it removes him from the world of conspicuous over-consumption, he still disdains using public transit. There are conflicts and contradictions in the character that don't seem fully mined here, which is partly a flaw in the script, but also feels like the result of directional choices. Under Metcalfe's direction, Wilkie plays Emmett for laughs as a pompous, over-the-top whinger. It's good for chuckles, but leaves us with a fairly two-dimensional interpretation of the character whose journey is the crux of the play.
The approach robs Panych's script of some of its punch, but there are still a lot of laughs to be had here. As the decrepit third dishwasher, Moss, Harry Nelken serves up some fantastic physical comedy. There's plenty of great wordplay in Panych's quick-witted dialogue, and Metcalfe paces it smartly. Anniko delivers great comic bluster as Dressler, and he and Wilkie have some wonderfully funny exchanges.
The action plays out on a spectacular set by Brian Perchaluk - dishes are literally piled to the rafters of the grimy, dingy basement. And the toilet visible through the doorway from the dish-pit reminds us that Emmett is, quite literally, down in the dumps.
It all adds up to a production of The Dishwashers that is entertaining, but doesn't feel quite as rich as it could be.
The Dishwashers runs at Prairie Theatre Exchange until Feb. 10.