Talk to me. It’s been hard.
Café Play, This is not a Theatre Company, conceived and directed by Erin B. Mee. Cornelia Street Café NYC (closing Nov. 5)
At communal dining tables, tucked in the back room of Cornelia Street Café we witness a bad date unravel, servers ruminating over our individual fates in the event of a zombie apocalypse, and the voice of a cockroach lamenting the light. Seated by playwright-director-hostess, we are gently instructed to shut off our phones and talk to the others at our table.
What follows is a series of disconnected vignettes written by Jenny Lyn Bader, Jessie Bear, Erin B. Mee and Colin Waitt that transpire over three courses (of green salad, mushroom risotto, and lemon sorbet) in which a handful of characters playing restaurant servers and patrons change roles to converse, dance, sing, and draw on our table tops with crayons. At one point, via hidden-speakers, a red coffee mug and a delicate flowered tea cup, voiced by Kathleen Chalfant, talk to each other about cup life.
Across the evening, quirky performer and choreographer Jonathan Matthews delightfully mutates from playing a cloying ex-boyfriend to an evocative dance about what it means for a woman to dine alone, without the crutch of a hardcover book, into another more participatory movement piece involving a light-up plant pot that responds to our touch with piano notes. The striking Nicole Orabona, a disgruntled professional server, bemoans the fact that she doesn’t have a second ‘real’ calling and demonstrates a mastery for killing annoying patrons with kindness.
Mee and company seem interested in more than a few things, including the under-appreciated and invisible labor of the service industry; our overly mediated interactions with one another; the secret lives of animals and objects; plus, race, gender, and cultural appropriation.
The show opens with a dismissive white server (Amanda Thickpenny) asking a black patron (Richard McBride) to provide his credit card before the meal. He immediately tweets and posts about the blatant racial microaggression. And rather than face-to-face telling his friend about it, he suggests that they just read Facebook to save time. Another patron at a nearby table – a white woman enduring the bad date (Caiti Lattimer) – finds his post, reads the thread, and confronts the server. Oddly, while the other characters continue to re-play roles, we don’t see McBride much more than that. Later, a mother played by the shape-shifting Thickpenny, asks/ not-asks her thoughtful friend (Lattimer) whether or not her child’s “Indian” Halloween costume is offensive.
Toward the end of the evening’s meal and show, in the moving echo chamber piece “Mary/ Ann” written by Jessie Bear, two women (Thickpenny and Lattimer) take turns body-shaming one another into sharing a brownie because each accounted for the other’s portion when they planned out their diet points. What would it mean, the two women ask one another if we didn’t carry all this “drivel” around in our heads. What kind of space would we have? Each takes a turn with the call to “Talk to me” and the response: “It’s been hard.” And it has.
What would it mean, Café Play wonders, if we could be more present– less tweets, phones off, open to chance strangers seated nearby, ears attuned to those around us, and to the creatures and objects outside of our usual frequencies? What would it mean to truly recognize, beyond cliché, the invisible toils of the aspiring Broadway singer (Marisa Laruffa) serving wine to the annoying ear-budded patron (Thickpenny) who wants that full-bodied– maybe red, maybe white?— pinot noir she ordered last time.
In the end, we get chocolate. We are instructed to close our eyes, pop a Hershey kiss into our mouths, and ‘let our tongues choreograph the dance of chocolate.’ The slightly too bright café lights finally dim as we retreat into our own sensorial experience. When we open our eyes, it’s back to bustling business and the show seems over. Lights up, and a lovely, real server tells us there’s no rush, would we like another glass of wine?
But, as I made my way out, and passed the performers chatting post-show, it seemed more important than ever to stop and say, “Thank you.”