Though first performed in Canada in 2005, The Dishwashers may be one of the blackest plays ever written by a white guy. If playwright Morris Panych had set his tragicomedy in Pittsburgh and put in a few more curses directed at the Man, it could pass for an August Wilson joint. But (as the all-Caucasian cast implies) that’s not what makes the first work in 59E59’s Americas Off Broadway Festival a quirky, insightful delight—it’s just a fascinating side note.
Panych sets the action in the filthy basement of a fancy restaurant, where three men battle “stuff that hardens on the plate.” Dressler (Tim Donoghue) is an ex-con and a lifer, so committed to dishwashing that he’s wrapped his entire consciousness around the job. Spitting non sequiturs, homoeroticism, and inappropriate comments, he tries to become a Svengali to plate-scraping novices like Emmett (Jay Stratton), a fallen yuppie secretly hired to eventually replace Moss (John Shuman), a confused and inept geriatric prone to traumatic flashbacks and coughing fits.
Despite Dressler’s reactionary tendencies and daft pronouncements—”The happiest creature in the world is the cockroach”—his intelligence and vocabulary far outstrip his lot in life. He has nevertheless accepted his fate: “If everybody was at the top of the heap,” he concedes, “there wouldn’t be a heap.” He takes a strange pride in his anonymous contribution to the quality of the restaurant: It fills him with “incredible happiness” to see his “sparkling white dishes, set out over all the tables.” His ethos runs remarkably close to that of a stock character in African-American literature, more complex than Uncle Tom but similar in that he must repurpose his repressed bitterness into complacency.
Emmett increasingly finds Dressler’s point of view seductive, despite its elements of subservience and self-destruction, which Donoghue’s squinty, tight-lipped portrayal nails with the right notes of menace and chaos. But the ingenue is perplexed to discover the grift that Dressler runs behind the backs of the managers—stealing and reselling them their own meat supply. Even white Uncle Toms need revenge, Panych suggests, in whatever small way they can get it.