09/16/2014 10:17 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

'My Mañana Comes': Trouble in the Kitchen

The plight of the struggling class, bypassed entirely by the slow economic recovery, and the inequities of our immigration laws come into sharp focus in Elizabeth Irwin's timely and ultimately provocative new play My Mañana Comes at Playwrights Realm.

The scene is the kitchen of an Upper East Side restaurant where a quartet of young men -- two native New Yorkers and two Mexican immigrants -- work long hours under an official job description of "busboys" but whose chores also include delivering plates of food to the waiters out front. They earn a fixed small stipend called "shift pay" and a share in the tips.

Each nurses a dream and every dream comes with a price tag. In fact, money, or more specifically the lack of it, is the overriding concern for all four of the workers who bustle back and forth between the kitchen and the front of the restaurant.

The play opens with Peter, a black man with a daughter he dotes on and whose custody he shares with her mother, and Jorge, a Mexican who watches every dime, counting the night's take in tips. They are soon joined by Whalid, a Brooklyn native whose grandfather was Mexican, and Pepe, the youngest of the four and who arrived from Mexico a few months earlier.

Much of My Mañana Comes is taken up with casual banter among the four busboys as they shuttle in and out of the kitchen. They are a chummy group, teasing one another over linguistic misunderstandings and with light ethnic slurs that would sound racist if a white guy uttered them. And they trade tales about the difficult customers, like the lady who sent her soup back to the kitchen 10 times.

Through the course of these conversations -- and in some rather awkward monologues each of the characters delivers directly to the audience - we learn what hopes each of the characters fosters.

Jorge, who has been in the country for four years, saves every penny in anticipation of returning to his wife and children in Mexico, buying a house and living a life of luxury. His penury extends to taking kitchen leftovers to the apartment he shares with seven other immigrants so that he won't have to spend money on food.

Whalid plans to take an EMT training course and even practices some resuscitation on Pepe. Peter wants enough money for his daughter to go to a good college, while Pepe, who has been sending money back home, indulges in a new pair of sneakers and longs to join the American consumer class. It is Whalid who voices the wistful hope each also shares of having a job with a salary and regular days off.

As the days move along, the hardships to which such workers are subjected are touched on. When business is slow, for example, they are told to leave early, which means they will get less pay. Or they are assigned willy-nilly to work different shifts on short notice. (Does this sound familiar, Starbucks?)

The conflict that breaks this amiable camaraderie apart comes late in the play, but presents a real dilemma between the native U.S. citizens and the Mexican immigrants, neither of whose papers could stand close scrutiny. And it raises anew the question of just how much we have lost with the decline of labor unions and underscores the need for new immigration laws.

Ms Irwin is fortunate with a fine cast. Jason Bowen delivers a solid performance as Peter and Jos'e Joaqu'in P'erez is convincing as Jorge. Brian Quijada gives a strong reading of Whalid and Reza Salazar ably plays Pepe. The director Chay Yew keeps the action moving, having his cast slice lemons, fold napkins and fill salt shakers both during scenes and between them.