No Great Mischief

by Alistair MacLeod
96 pages,
ISBN: 0771055706

The Dishwashers

by Morris Panych
132 pages,
ISBN: 0889225249

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by Martin Morrow

Most of us have had a boring, cruddy job when we were younger that we did temporarily for the money. And we probably met an older person there who had somehow got stuck in the same job for life, and who, like Dressler in The Dishwashers, had come up with some rationale for being there so as not to slit his wrists.
The central character of Morris Panych's latest play is a terrific comic figureła middle-aged schlub, resigned to washing dishes in a posh restaurant, who has developed a philosophical attitude towards his soapy fate. He's a Socrates of the dish pit; in this instance, it is literally a pit, since the dishwashers have been relegated to a basement where, like the Morlocks in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, they slave away for the beautiful people above them.
With nothing going for him but seniority, Dressler also uses his experience to lord over new employees, like Emmett, a down-on-his-luck young man who was once one of the beautiful people. Expressing a hilariously inflated sense of the dishwasher's importance in the grand scheme of the restaurant (one dirty dish, he says, and "we all go down"), Dressler shows Emmett the ropes (or, in this case, hoses) while pontificating on soap-to-water ratios and the best way to get Parmesan off porcelain.
Dressler's a great character and it's just too bad that the play he's part of isn't better. I've always had mixed feelings about Panych's absurdist comedies. I know why theatres love to do them: the prolific Vancouver playwright combines the sensibilities of Harold Pinter and Neil Simon, creating dark, out of kilter universes a la Pinter, but replacing his pauses with funny patter. In fact, some of Panych's plays (Vigil, Lawrence and Holloman) are more like extended existential jokes with a punchline for a dTnouement. But you don't come away from them with any fresh insight into the absurdity of the human condition, and The Dishwashers doesn't even have the clever zinger of a climax we've come to expect from this writer.
There's tension between Dressler, the lifer, and disgruntled Emmett, a former corporate tiger who refuses to accept dishwashing as his fate. If Dressler isn't proof enough for him that the job makes you loopy, there's the even-older washer in the pit, the aptly named Moss, an ancient, cancer-riddled curmudgeon in a state of semi-senility, who, in a running joke, keeps showing up for work not realising he's been fired. But despite this example of the pathetic consequences of mindless drudgery, Dressler continues to spout off erratically about duty, pride in good work, and the wisdom of low expectations, when not idealising the restaurant's unseen management as culinary visionaries. Finally, however, his sense of order is threatened when Emmett decides to petition their employers for better working conditions.
The synopsis on The Dishwashers' back cover refers to it as penetrating the myth of the classless society, but Panych, typically, isn't specific about time and place, so there's no context for social commentary. Besides, if that were his intention, he'd have to do more than make passing references to immigrants and acknowledge that, in most of the Western world, it's often newcomers who do these kinds of dirty jobs. No, the play really boils down to a basic argument between existential viewpoints that covers much the same ground as other Panych plays. And since the characters of Dressler and Moss don't have enough depth to be tragic, we aren't moved by their plate-scrubbing plight.
At best, The Dishwashers gives us an amusing Beckettian vision of the dish pit as an earthly purgatory (another opportunity for an atmospheric set design from Panych's collaborator Ken MacDonald, to judge from the book's photos) and more of this playwright's deliciously absurd dialogue.

Adaptingłor better say, cuttingła novel for the stage is always a dodgy prospect, but what you lose in richness of detail you can sometimes gain in narrative drive. In dramatising Alistair MacLeod's No Great Mischief, David Young has excised some characters (notably the twin sister of Alexander, the narrator) and reduced others (particularly the distinctive grandparents), but he has also focused more tightly on the relationship between Alexander and his oldest brother Calum, and made it the essence of MacLeod's tale about a Cape Breton family's ragged fortunes.
Alexander MacDonald, a successful middle-aged dentist in Windsor, Ontario, goes to visit his much older sibling, a broken-down alcoholic living in a flop house off Toronto's Spadina Avenue. In this regular Saturday ritual of reminiscence, their past comes alive: Calum is once again the strong, unruly young buck who went off to rough it with his other two brothers after their parents died in a tragic accident, while Alexander is the favoured youngest boy who was taken in and raised by his loving grandparents.
The brothers go their separate ways from there, though the four of them converge for a little while after Calum and the other two leave Cape Breton to work as hard-rock miners in Ontario, and Alexander, fresh from university, decides to join them for a summer. It is then that Calum, seeking revenge for the death of a cousin, commits the act that will destroy the rest of his life.
These MacDonalds have a strong sense of clan allegiance, family history, and an ingrained sense of their fate, continually referring to their Scottish immigrant forbears and to a destiny marked by "shadow and storm". In Young's adaptation, that ancestry is repeatedly evoked in Gaelic phrases and songs, and here again the play has the advantage over the novel in that the musicality of the language is more easily appreciated when it is heard in a performance than when it is read (especially for the majority of us who don't speak it). The published script, however, could have done with a pronunciation guide.
Young is a fine original playwright whose other works include Glenn, a bravura dissection of the multi-faceted personality of pianist Glenn Gould, and the popular rock'n'religion musical Fire (co-written with Paul Ledoux). Here, like all good adaptors, he lets his own voice take a backseat to MacLeod's, using his expertise to build a solid dramatic framework in which the author's eloquent text (already written as though to be spoken) is allowed to live and breathe onstage. ņ

Martin Morrow is an award-winning theatre critic and the author of Wild Theatre: The History of One Yellow Rabbit.

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