A bustling, upscale restaurant may be filled with sunlight and laughter, but beneath the patrons' feet is another world they will never know: a dark, grimy, steam-filled cellar where three dishwashers clutch their sponges and wait for their next shipment of dirty, food-stained plates. Morris Panych’s bleak, yet deeply profound comedy, The Dishwashers, focuses on the lives of these three dishwashers: a terminally ill old man named, Moss (John Shuman), a veteran dishwasher and liaison to the world upstairs, Dressler (Tim Donoghue) and a newbie college drop out, Emmett (Jay Stratton).
The men work through the festivities of Christmas, scraping cigarettes out of mashed potatoes, and through the excitement of New Years Eve, hoping that after the ball drops they will find an unfinished flute of champagne in the bus tray.
Charlie Corcoran compliments the mood with a visually capturing set that pulls the viewer into the cellar with the dishwashers. There is no sign of ventilation – not even a ceiling fan – the paint on the wall is peeling and the wooden stairs leading up to the restaurant are moldy and rotted. Emmett’s outfit is too short; the arms barely come past the elbows and the pants end at his knees.
The setup of the room and the condition of their work clothes gives a clear indication of the dishwashers' status, both in life and in the eyes of the restaurant.
Jill Nagle’s lights also add another layer to the story. When the dishwashers are on their lunch break the lights are sharp and piercing, but when they return to work the room dims. Slivers of light seep through the ceiling, casting stripes on the dishwashers' aprons. The result is an image that eerily resembles three inmates toiling away in prison uniforms.
But is their little corner of the world a prison? That is the question bouncing between Emmett and Dressler with a clueless Moss caught in between. Emmett thinks Moss needs to live a little before he dies. Dressler disagrees. Moss was born for this life and he’ll die in this life.
Saddled with emotional problems of his own, Emmett is unsure of his place in the world and wholly susceptible to Dressler’s hard-nosed mentality that anyone who ends up in this cellar will never have the fortitude to work their way out of it.
Dressler is a difficult character to like but a fascinating one to listen to. While Emmett and Moss openly despise their situations, Dressler embraces his. He loves seeing the silverware sparkle in the morning light, even though no one will ever credit him for its shine. “I love this job,” he tells Emmett proudly. “Not because it’s a good job, but because it’s my job.”
Aside from this passionate declaration, Donoghue reveals little about his character’s true nature. He catches himself before the conversation turns personal and throws in a crude joke if he feels the moment getting too chummy. He also shows no remorse for brainwashing Emmett into accepting a life that he is desperate to get out of.
When Dressler first meets Emmett he asks his name. When Emmett tells him Dressler barks, “Wrong! It’s New Guy. You have to earn the right to be called Emmett.” Dressler believes respect is earned by remaining in the cellar, while Emmett feels it lies at the top of the stairs.
The Dishwashers does not lean to one side or the other. There is no heavy-handedness and no clear resolution. Instead, Panych leaves room for the viewer to decide who is at peace with his place in the world and who will always see himself as a prisoner, trapped in a restaurant cellar.