There are no high-stepping singing waiters à la Hello, Dolly! anywhere near Elizabeth Irwin's gritty exposure of restaurant's lowest of the low – the busboys – in My Mañana Comes (2014). The only high kicks might be the precise trajectories as they maneuver trays of food from the kitchen to waiters off stage. Precision comes from slicing limes, schlepping buckets of ice, folding napkins, applying a squirt of sauce to the entrée, and counting the tips.
Invert the harmonious world of Dolly's Harmonia Gardens and look “back of the house.” The view is no musical. These guys' American dream is a shit job for shit pay. Exploited and run hard and put away wet by management, the four workers have an uneasy camaraderie, teasing and joshing, dissing each other with racial and cultural slurs. All together at the bottom of the ladder, they can dream, can't they? All they want is a slice of that elusive American pie. Boy, can they taste it. In their faux world of haute cuisine, filtered through trash and food scraps, it's right there, hazily out of reach. By play's end, we find out they'll do almost anything to keep grasping upward.
Literally torn from today's headlines, Irwin's kitchen-sink drama (one with a real kitchen sink) does not flinch from a world we barely notice or ever think about – those serf jobs, those menial service positions that pay next to nothing with no benefits, no insurance and not much chance of advancement. Filled mostly by illegals, this shadow economy hums along because there's always somebody needy and ready enough to fill the vacuum.
Irwin peoples her drama with a cross-section of contemporary low-rent America. Peter (intense Brandon Morgan) is the old-timer who's been slaving at this posh Manhattan eatery for years. He runs the backroom, exactly calculates how many limes will be needed, knows when the restaurant will slow down, when customers will leave, prepares for each day with mathematician's accuracy. Who wouldn't want him running the kitchen? More than the others, he realizes how demeaning their life is and how they're treated by the owners, but he's grateful to have a paycheck to give his daughter a better life. For all his hard work, though, he can't keep up with expenses and the stuff life throws at him in an unending pile. All he asks for is a little respect. He dreams of running the owner's future new restaurant.
Illegal Jorge (stalwart Gabriel Regojo) has worked at the restaurant for four years. Frugal and imbued with a sterling work ethic, although unappreciated, he needs only a few more months until he can return to Mexico, where he's building a house for his family on the substantial earnings he's saved dollar by paltry dollar. He is a good man, taking home leftovers to feed himself and friends so he doesn't have to buy groceries. He spends nothing on himself, thinking only of his family back home. If there's a saint in this play, he's it.
Whalid (delightfully spry Dayne Lathrop) is the showstopping role, the smart ass with the best quip and attitude for days. He has Mexican roots, but considers himself Puerto Rican. Jaunty and full of unrequited desires, he's good-time Charlie and will consider any job for a buck. He's just got to have those new Nikes. His dream is to dine at Applebee's, not Popeyes.
Pepe (idealistic Juan Sebastian Cruz) is the newbie, fresh from Mexico and, like Jorge, also illegal. He thinks NYC is paved with gold and doesn't appreciate Jorge's dour thrift. He dreams of tall American women and making enough money to bring his brother to the big city where they can live large. Watch how he plays with a tablecloth as if it's a matador's cape. He's a kid with a kid's big hope.
The guys' dreams are dropped in by Irwin with a thudding unnaturalness in a series of little monologues, poetic asides that trip up her gutsy momentum to let us know she's writing a play. The guys' dreams are there in their actions, their repartee, the exact way they handle a knife or fold a napkin. It's a small misstep in an artfully crafted play. The characters are deftly drawn, faults and all, exquisitely played by the superb cast, and sent reeling by director Leslie Swackhamer, who knows how to set a scene before the scene even begins. The play is fragrant, the drama now, and it catches us up with the toil and plight of these forgotten men. The ending is a caustic surprise, an act of petty vengeance. Peter needs this awful job; what good is a conscience? It's full of recrimination and lasting guilt. It will haunt you.
Once again, Stages gives us a set to slaver over, out-Belascoing Belasco. The scrumptious design by Torsten Louis, lighted with overhead harshness by Devlin Brown, is a melange of baker's trays, stainless steel tables, rolling prep stations, squeeze bottles and salt shakers, trays and knives, and those ubiquitous wicker baskets in which bread is served. Cafe Annie is given “special thanks,” perhaps for supplying the equipment, teaching the cast how to de-stem strawberries or furnishing the unseen cook who passes one delicious-looking dish after another onto the back counter.
It smells delicious at Stages. The aroma of incredibly tasty theater, four amazingly accomplished actors and a new voice, Irwin, I want to hear again. Once you savor this play, you'll never dine at Tony's – or McDonald's – without empathizing with those who slave, and dream, behind the scenes. Bon appétit!
My Mañana Comes continues 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 5. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $21 to $65.