The four busboys who work in the kitchen of a tony Upper East Side restaurant in the well-acted, superbly directed new play by Elizabeth Irwin, “My Manana Comes,” bring home a cruel irony of the $30 billion New York City restaurant industry that employs about one out of every 10 New Yorkers: Many restaurant workers can barely afford to feed themselves.* Wages are low – restaurants are required to pay their tipped workers just $2.13 an hour, based on the assumption that the tips will provide the needed full income. But tipped workers are reportedly twice as likely as the average worker to live in poverty. Their jobs are also rarely secure.
“My Manana Comes,” produced by the Playwrights Realm theater company at the Peter Sharp Theater, is no didactic tract on the exploitation of restaurant workers. It is a spot-on recreation of the “back of house” of a fancy restaurant – right down to the totally convincing set by Wilson Chin – where the four men in black Nehru jackets fold linen, fill baskets with bread and buckets with ice, deliver the plates of food and return with the dirty dishes, in a ballet of efficiency.
While working, they talk, and over the course of a summer we get to know them.
Peter (Jason Bowen) has worked at the restaurant for four years, and hopes to get promoted. He gives up a lucrative Wednesday lunch to see his five-year-old daughter off to day camp, even though her mother or grandmother could have accompanied her; she wanted her Daddy. “She’s the worst, because she won’t whine for shit…She just gives you one of those old soul looks: ‘Ok, I understand.’…What can I do in that face of that, right? ” An African-American, he has learned some Spanish to speak to his co-workers.
Jorge (Jose Joaquin Perez) has worked at the restaurant almost as long as Peter, but he is there only to save enough money to buy a house back in Puebla, Mexico, and return to his wife and two children. He lives a Spartan life crowded together in a room with other immigrants, and is so frugal that he brings home leftover day-old rolls and hardened mac n cheese from the restaurant to eat for breakfast every morning.
The other two have been working there only a few months. Pepe (Reza Salazar) left a brother back in Juarez and, though he aims to save like Jorge, he is wide-eyed with wonder at “Niketown! Town! Un pueblo entero. Five floors,” and cannot resist spending what little money he has on sneakers and beer and clubs. Whalid (Brian Quijada) grew up in Coney Island, a wise-cracking third-generation Mexican-American who hopes to become an EMT. He feels he has little in common with Pepe or Jorge. “I thought I was Puerto Rican til I was like eight and my grandpa’s like why you sitting under that Puerto Rican flag on the beach, that’s not your country.”
It becomes clear as the summer progresses that all of the characters are struggling, and there are tensions between them – tensions that come to a head when the (unseen) restaurant manager announces that “shift pay” will be eliminated (leaving tips as the only income), and the different workers react in revealing ways.
If until the somewhat abrupt end, “My Manana Comes” feels less like a fully realized drama and more like a group portrait, Irwin’s play vividly attends to a group deserving of more attention, inhabiting a much-ignored world right on the other side of those swinging doors.
*For more information, read the July, 2014 report Food Insecurity of Restaurant Workers
My Manana Comes
produced by Playwrights Realm at The Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Written by Elizabeth Irwin
Directed by Chay Yew
Wilson Chin (Scenic Design), Moria Sine Clinton (Costume Design), Nicole Pearce(Lighting Design) and Mikhail Fiksel (Sound Design).
Cast: Jason Bowen, Jose Joaquin Perez, Brian Quijada, Reza Salazar
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $25 – $35. Restaurant workers can receive a discount if they email firstname.lastname@example.org
My Manana Comes is set to run through September 20th, 2014