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If one person’s trash is another’s treasure, then the inverse must be equally true. In that vein, I’m sure some audiences will find humor and heart in The Garbologists, a two-hander by Lindsay Joelle receiving its world premiere from Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC). Others will regard this comedy-drama about an unlikely team of sanitation workers as a super-attenuated sitcom premise stretched to 90 tedious minutes. Count me in the latter camp.
This isn’t the first time PTC has chronicled the lives of those who wear hard hats and handle heavy machinery to earn their keep. Paige Price opened her inaugural season as artistic director with Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning Sweat, about deindustrialization in Pennsylvania’s steel industry, and Bebe Neuwirth played a tough-as-nails construction foreman in Adam Bock’s A Small Fire (2019). Although neither play captured blue-collar drudgery with perfect verisimilitude, they offered more complete portraits of the people who do invisible, indispensable jobs—the essential workers we alternately venerate and ignore.
Odd couple in the cab
But unlike Nottage or Bock, Joelle relies too heavily on stereotype and shorthand when it comes to this type of employment, to say nothing of the individuals who find themselves in these jobs. She gives us an odd couple of overeducated enigma and lovable grunt, each with barely concealed layers begging to be predictably peeled away. The play’s seeming message—that even the most mismatched duo on the surface can share kinship and camaraderie—is admirable but hardly groundbreaking.
The result is a fairly thin character study. Early scenes define Marlowe (Ngozi Anyanwu) and Danny (Steven Rishard) by their differences. She’s Black, he’s white. She proudly proclaims herself an “Ivy League double-degree” holder, while he just as proudly matriculated through the school of hard knocks. Her background is Brooklyn Heights affluence, and he’s a Staten Island guy from the neighborhood.
If you’re wondering how these two ended up sharing the cab of a garbage truck, don’t worry. Joelle will tell you soon enough. The script skirts deep psychology in favor of easily digestible platitudes on the human condition. Despite their divergences, Marlowe and Danny share enough similarities to telegraph a grudging respect for each other, though it strains credulity that their relationship would ever grow deeper than that. At least it does here, when moments that could lead to introspection are bulldozed to get to a joke, or potentially messy moments in either character’s backstory are glossed over. The result often feels more like an undergraduate short story, adopting and repurposing themes better explored elsewhere, than a complete depiction of complicated lives.
The performances could do more to tie up the loose ends, but under Estefanía Fadul’s stiff direction, the acting remains mostly general. The usually terrific Rishard, who excels when playing scary and unsettling, struggles to convey the one-joke nature of his role. He lets his New Yawk accent do most of the work. Anyanwu is competent but monochromatic in an underwritten role that desperately needs some shading. She communicates why Marlowe makes the series of unexpected choices that leads her to working in sanitation, but she only hints at the inner turmoil at the root of them.
The energy of Fadul’s production flags quickly, with extended scene changes that zap any momentum despite flavorful music by Daniel Ison. Whenever Rishard or Anyanwu aren’t hurtling trash bags into compactors on Christopher Ash’s impressive set, they tend to deliver their lines directly to the house in a bland, presentational style. Even at the end of the play, when it’s suggested that Marlowe and Danny have forged an unlikely friendship, they don’t seem to fully inhabit the same universe.
Prior to the opening performance, I walked past a series of brightly colored refuse bins painted by the Philadelphia-born artist Alloyius Mcilwaine, which were displayed prominently in the PTC lobby. These cans were eye-catching, highly individual, and memorable. In short, they were everything The Garbologists is not.
What, When, Where
The Garbologists. By Lindsay Joelle. Directed by Estefanía Fadul. $10-$55. Philadelphia Theatre Company. Through December 5, 2021, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 985-1400 or philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.
Philadelphia Theatre Company requires all audience members to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Masks are required during the performance. Distanced seating is available in the mezzanine and can be purchased in advance.
The Suzanne Roberts Theatre is a fully accessible venue, with automatic entryways, box office windows at wheelchair level, and elevator access between floors. There will be an audio-described performance of The Garbologists on December 1 at 1pm and an open-captioned performance on December 4 at 2pm.
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