Yes, you can count on the Fountain Theatre to offer well produced and directed plays with top notch actors. Of all the many equity waiver theaters in and around Los Angeles, The Fountain is perhaps the most consistent. If there is a message –more often than not, there is a message – it probably will not please you if you are contemplating voting for Donald Trump. And yes, sometimes, the message swamps the medium.
Playwright Elizabeth Irwin has used her years of working in the restaurant world to capture the voices of the guys in the back of the house of an upscale French restaurant in Manhattan. These are not the glib waiters (very likely unemployed actors) who introduce themselves by name tableside, and recite the multitude of ingredients of each daily special. These are the busboys, unsung and even more exploited than workers in the front. Michael Navarro’s set design is as meticulous as Irwin’s language. The cast, choreographed by “Movement Director” Sylvia Blush, whisks realistically about the kitchen bantering and chiding one another, all the while, folding napkins, slicing fruit, rushing plated foods to impatient unseen diners. It is the waltz of the restaurant. And it goes on for almost the entire 90 minutes.
The story, such as it is, concerns Peter (Lawrence Stallings) handsome African American head busboy who has earned his status through hard work and organization. He is careful to avoid making waves. His young daughter is the apple of his eye. His aspirations are modest, but life keeps getting in his way. Jorge (Richard Azurdia) is a Mexican immigrant who saves every penny he earns to send back home and build a home for his wife and two small children whom he hasn’t seen since infancy. He years to return. Slick Whalid (Peter Pasco) hails from the Bronx; he has big dreams that change regularly. His motivation is to move out from his family, but he gets distracted along the way by women, Nikes, Heineken, and pot. The most recent addition to the crew, and a very recent immigrant, is Pepe (Pablo Castelblanco). Young, bright eyed, and very naïve, Pepe is dazzled by all that Whalid boasts of. He dreams of bringing his brother to America so he can share the illusive American bounty. It is clear they are all precariously perched economically. They are not a natural group, but as is so often true, being thrown together by the workplace they have formed bonds that show through their constant ribbing. All four are excellent actors. Lawrence Stallings rises even above such a talented cast. It is hard not to lose your heart to these men.
Irwin skillfully fills us in on their back stories as she paints the threat posed by the slow summer season and the threat of the manager withholding pay. So vivid is her picture that I breathed a sigh of relief that we had had dinner before. Surely anyone with a soul would become preoccupied by comparisons to the play he had just seen were he to venture into a restaurant.
Irwin’s great shortcoming is in building an interesting story arc. Translating it into a graph would produce the gentlest slope representing the tedium of their lives, with a minor, and not surprising, spike representing the final seven or eight minutes. The message is clear – these men are being exploited – but it swamps the drama that is necessary for compelling theater.