Louis Mustillo has taken a time-honored dramatic tradition, the bar play, and stripped it to a bare essential: the bartender. Actually, in Bartenders (Phil Bosakowski Theatre), he’s distilled it (no pun intended) to a group of six who speak for themselves sequentially. In most plays set where drinks are served and hopes are often being dashed, the bartender is part guide, part philosopher. Mustillo, smartly directed by Janis Powell, has something more down to earth in mind.
According to his bio, the actor-playwright started bartending when he was 20, and his father, Louis Mustillo Sr., to whom the production is dedicated, bartended for 52 years. Fully understandable then that the half-dozen Manhattan monologuists (none of whom invokes the word “mixologist”) proudly defend what they maintain is an honorable calling. They make humble comments like “I’m a bartender—that’s what I do” and question inaccurate, cheapening depictions of bar life—jeering Cheers, for instance, where “nobody ever pays for a drink.” A rare admitted deceit is charging inebriated non-tippers for free drinks given to generous regulars.
That’s not to say that, in championing the profession, Paddy, Bobby, Benny, and colleagues don’t reveal foibles and weaknesses. One, finishing a Christmas Eve shift, recalls a happy holiday with a girlfriend who eventually split, claiming his choice of career indicated he had no dreams. Another explains how the money he amassed at his Eleventh Avenue joint went to drugs and horses. Another, up to his highballs in debt, wonders why he can be sued by a customer who exited looking stone sober and then had a near-fatal automobile accident.
Because the kinetic, fiftyish Mustillo knows whereof he speaks and freely uses jargon like “speed rack” and “behind the wood” while revealing trade tricks, and because he’s talking with thoughtful sincerity for thousands like him and his father, the erstwhile barman has poured one satisfying straight wry.