There’s a special form of resentment I and the rest of working class America feel about restaurant jobs. Yeah, you know exactly what I’m talking about: coming home from work smelling as if you were delivered from the loins of a canola oil bottle, being yelled at by a customer because, apparently, you don’t know how to serve baklava, crying behind the door of a bathroom stall as the meaning of life becomes less and less clear to you. I’m totally not speaking from experience.
Similarly, there’s a special form of resentment I feel for Sideshow Theatre Company’s Mai Dang Lao, a show about working class Americans hustling to their own destruction at a sleepy McDonald’s. Based on true events, the show has all the equipment and fryolators needed to be a rousing success. However, a distracted script and an identity crisis of direction will not have you supersizing your fries or shake or, most notably, the enjoyment of your evening.
Mai Dang Lao revolves around a young, bored McDonald’s employee, Sophie (Sarah Price), who has already given two weeks’ notice and given up on caring about the bullshit that is her job. However, when a local police officer (Jim Poole) calls in claiming that a crime has been committed at their lowly fast food joint, Sophie’s superiors (Matt Fletcher and LaNisa Renee Frederick) misinterpret her not-that-unusual, angst-y attitude as indication that Sophie is, in fact, the perpetrator of the crime. Strangers to any powers outside of their own meaningless positions, Sophie’s manager and supervisor embrace their newfound, godly authority and thus trail blaze a crime of their own.
Meant to be a provocative twist on power, abuse, and both hope and the lack thereof, the play only succeeds on these counts when the audience is visibly faced with the image of mistreatment on the stage. And there’s images aplenty in Mai Dang Lao. Trust me. Yet these brutal shots can only be called out as so because, by default, disturbing imagery is, well, disturbing. But an image does not a play make, and when the 80-minute script fails to deliver, almost all authority on the subject is lost.
I’ll be honest, though: The top of the show is misleadingly strong. The banter is quick, the relationships are apparent, and the lay of the land is made clear. However, the director Marti Lyons and the playwright David Jacobi seem to want to focus on both the banality of existing in a fast food job (as well as the banality of purely existing) while still keeping the artistic stakes ambitiously high. Needless to say, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have a show with dramatic spotlights and victimizing and fourth wall-breaking soliloquys while simultaneously reclaiming a naturalistic environment filled with bored conversation and texting on the job. It just doesn’t work that way. But the script seems to want you to believe otherwise. Stuffed with filler, the subplots complicate the overall message and keep you wondering why – just why – the script is so busy talking about absolutely nothing. Who cares that the napkins cost more than the McNuggets? And who cares that there’s a plastic Mulan Happy Meal toy out in storage that the characters seem obsessed with? All it does is keep me from caring about the violence occurring to the main character – or from caring period. Jacobi as a writer finds himself in the position where he’s in love with the moments he has created so much so that he won’t take an eraser to the page, and the play only suffers for it.
The worst offense, however, might be those bloody spotlights and the near-end soliloquy. Oh, that soliloquy. Taking its cues from something resembling metatheatre, the character of Sophie begins to become aware that she’s perhaps a spokesperson for all of America’s sins? Our own sins? Actually, I’m not too sure. Perhaps the director and the playwright weren’t too sure themselves.
And this is all such a shame, because the acting is truly solid in this show. Sarah Price is mesmerizing as Sophie – chockfull of authority and vulnerability and all of the humanity this show lacks. The rest of the ensemble also understands this balance as they too find themselves trapped in the crappy predicaments they have created for themselves. If there’s any reason to go out and see this show, it’s to support these actors and the vitality they bring to Mai Dang Lao. Yet as you see these characters limp off into their unknown futures, so will you limp off wondering how such a convincing premise failed to deliver. No fries with that. Keep the change, please.
Mai Dang Lao is running at Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., until April 10. Show times are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, with Sunday matinees at 3pm. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased online, at the Victory Gardens box office, or by calling 773-871-3000.