The words "menial labour" are not uttered in Canadian playwright Morris Panych's comedy The Dishwashers.
But this satiric offering centres on a debate about that condescending concept. If working for a living is inherently dignified, is there any such thing as "menial labour?"
Emmett (Rylan Wilkie) clearly believes there is. A financial player brought low by a recent economic crunch, he descends into the basement dishwasher pit like an ignoble Dante entering one of the circles of hell. (The set design by Brian Perchaluk is correct right down to the skeevy details, including a working sink, rust stains on the stairs and a glimpse of a repellent-looking bathroom in the corner.)
Emmett used to dine in the trendy bistro upstairs and now, desperate for income, is forced to work there doing a job he never contemplated.
Showing him the ropes is the effusive Dressler (Tom Anniko), a career dishwasher who truly believes his job is meaningful, that the chefs upstairs are artistic visionaries and that Emmett (whom he will refer to as "New Guy" until he demonstrates his worth) must look on this seeming comedown as an opportunity.
"You could be a great dishwasher," Dressler asserts.
The third man in the crew is Moss (Harry Nelken), a cancer-ridden career dishwasher occasionally seized by moments of dementia, alternately enthused and bitter about his job, which he half-heartedly spins to accentuate the positive: "We're workin' our way up... except for the 'up' part."
Emmett, believes this is not a career but a manifestation of his own bad luck. "This isn't a choice," he says. "This is a hole we fell in."
Panych's dialogue can seem stilted and it indeed comes off that way between Anniko and Wilkie before the actors hit their groove. By the second act, the three dishwashers actually perform a choreographed dance to denote the unlikely physical grace that comes with long hours in a tight space.
Director Robert Metcalfe leavens the oft-repetitive dialogue with moments of delightful physical comedy, with Nelken in particular shining in a steadfastly comic portrayal of ever-diminishing physical capacity.
One wishes the dialogue was as delightful, or as organic. Often, the lengthy exchanges between Dressler and Emmett feel like a playwright working out a debate in his head and not a spontaneous exchange of ideas.
Those ideas are worthy of exploration anyway, especially in a time when the dignity of work is steadily becoming an embattled concept.
Toby Hughes rounds out the cast in a brief but endearing comic bit as a drummer in need of a day job. Greg Lowe also provides a clever musical soundtrack suggestive of cutlery rhythmically clanking in a rinse cycle.
To Sunday, Feb. 10 at Prairie Theatre Exchange
Tickets $25 to $47
3 stars out of five