THE BLOG
09/06/2014 12:08 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2014

First Nighter: Restaurant Play 'My Manana Comes' Is a Tangy Dish

Four busboys are hustling non-stop at Frederick's Madison, an Upper East Side Manhattan restaurant, when Elizabeth Irwin's My Manana Comes -- ultimately an ironic title -- begins with velocity and ferocity in the Playwrights Realm production at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.

They're Peter (Jason Bowen), Whalid (Brian Quijada), Jorge (José Joaquin Perez) and Pepe (Reza Salazar). As directed with immaculate precision by Chay Yew, they instantly bring to percussive life their demanding though unrewarding working conditions.

As they populate the area, sometimes wiping the stainless steel prep table, sometimes folding napkins, sometimes slicing lemons (isn't that a bartender's job at most estaminets?), sometimes grabbing plates and glasses of water to deliver to tables on the double, sometimes taking an opportunity to discuss what they're up to when they're not at work, sometimes seeming to do everything at once, they quickly impress ticket buyers that this is what it has to be like at eateries everywhere -- eateries frequently staffed by illegal immigrants.

And congrats to all concerned -- that includes set designer Wilson Chin and props designer Anna Demenkoff -- for achieving the kind of verisimilitude that Arnold Wesker also stalked and captured in The Kitchen, his 1959 play that followed restaurant workers through a single morning to night slot. (Incidentally, the immigrants-without-papers situation here definitely conjures thoughts of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge.)

My Manana Comes does lack a fulminating chef coming through waving a knife. What can be seen of such a figure is a disembodied arm handing dishes at a pass-through. Likewise, not a single waiter barges through the swinging doors to demand more prompt service from the put-upon underlings.

Ultimately, those absences make no matter. There is a small problem with Irwin's writing, however. This accrues when it seems as if her slicing-up-those-lemons slice-of-life drama is going to be that and only that. We've gotten the message within the first 10 or 15 minutes. Okay, patrons are thinking, now what?

Irwin supplies the answer perhaps a bit late, but still it comes, better late than never. The busboys count on shift pay, and it abruptly seems as if that remuneration is in jeopardy. That's when Irwin ups the stakes to show how her quartet responds individually and collectively. Yay! Drama!

Irwin's above-and-beyond-verisimilitude intentions kick in. She's not simply illustrating how strapped the underprivileged are with their unrealized manana dreams in a too real workaday existence. She's also offering a metaphor of life's unfair strata system. The powerful are unseen. For My Manana Comes, a manager named Fabrice is at the top of a partial staircase glimpsed in the back of Chin's set. His pronouncements issue from on high, but he's not present.

Irwin makes sure that she's dealing in a broader perspective with the plight of immigrants so much in the news today and so stalled in Congress. She reiterates that their future is disturbingly unsure and makes the point in a script where Peter and Whalid are citizens, but Jorge and Pepe are not.

The playwright also does well with each character. Peter, who's been at the establishment the longest and expects to run the front of the house one day worries about supporting his family properly. Whalid is the seemingly happy-go-lucky crew member, claiming he's soon to quit for an EMT position. Jorge has toiled four years to send money home but may not be able to return when he promised his wife and children he would. Pepe is living in squalor with several others at $50 a bed and imagines he'll be able to afford an apartment when his brother joins him.

To underline the men's concerns, Irwin hands them each a monologue--and lighting designer Nicole Pearce gives them a spotlight in which to deliver it. These turns seem unnecessary, since she's already effectively etched their problems. Furthermore, the device has its drawback. Once the first monologue occurs, the audience knows the play won't conclude until all four workers have unburdened themselves in that eerie spotlight. The audience dutifully waits for the next three, silently ticking them off one by one, don't you know?

Nevertheless, Irwin's My Manana Comes packs a humane and political punch with the characters as the punching bags, while actors Bowen, Perez, Quijada and Salazar and director Chay do the solid gut punching.