By Donna Herman
If you’ve ever worked in an office anywhere, of any size, in any industry, you will find something familiar in Dolphins and Sharks, which opened on March 1st at the Labyrinth Theater Company. Playwright James Anthony Tyler must have worked his way through his two MFA’s because his understanding of office dynamics is spot-on. It’s got to come from personal experience. Trust me, it takes one to know one, and I KNOW.
Dolphins and Sharks is set in Harlem in a FedEx type Copy Center/Shipping Store called Harlem Office. The wonderfully flexible theater space at Labyrinth has been brilliantly designed by Marsha Ginsberg so that the audience enters through a door onto the set and must make their way through the copy shop to the seats. Every element is perfect down to the pony-tailed, gum-chewing, sneaker clad young woman watching TV on a computer monitor and sharpening pencils with one leg draped over the arm of her chair and her back to the audience as they file in.
The entire play takes place here except for one dream-like moment at the opening of the play as the lights come up and the city noises of garbage trucks and horns honking give way to the sounds of chains clanking and people chanting. And we see the cast, moving together in chain-gang fashion briefly, and then the lights fade, city noises rise and the cast transforms into the staff and patrons of Harlem Office.
Our pre-show pencil sharpener turns out to be Xiomara Yepez (Flor De Liz Perez), a staffer who is interviewing prospective new Sales Associates before the shop opens. She has been waiting for Yusef (Chinaza Uche) who is 45 minutes late for his interview and who finally shows up. She has absolutely no patience for bullshit and won’t even let him in the door.
YUSUF: I’m sorry. It was the trains.
XIOMARA: I checked the MTA’s website. All trains running on schedule.
YUSUF: Pleasepleasepleaseplease… If you let me in, I’ll explain.
XIOMARA: No need. Leave.
YUSUF: I’ll do whatever it takes to get this job.
XIOMARA: What it takes is arriving on time at 8 a.m., not 8:45.
YUSUF: I promise you I… am the guy for this job. The only guy. I have a Bachelor’s degree!
XIOMARA: Then you should have learned to show up to interviews on time. Goodbye!
Yusef is saved by the arrival of Isabel (Pernell Walker), Xiomara’s co-worker and co-conspirator who convinces her to give him a chance because she’s tired of doing the extra work the open spot has made for the two of them. And so begins the tale of allegiances, friendships, rivalries, jealousies, and uncertainties that are the lifeblood of every office. This one is flavored with sharp observations on race, the economy, class, and culture. The dialog is zingy, the pace is crisp, and the ensemble cast works supremely well together. Indeed, the entire cast is strong and each character is a fully fleshed out, individual human that is easy to recognize. Kudos to director Charlotte Brathwaite for moving the tale along so nicely.
Where the playwright’s youth betrays him is in the ending of the play. There really isn’t one. He lays out the problem nicely, says there’s strength in numbers – Dolphins swim in packs to avoid shark attacks, the shark in this case being the never seen owner Mr. Timmons – but allows the characters to fragment and go off on their own. Then asks the audience if they’re going to sit back and allow this to happen. That’s not the way the real world works. Mommy and Daddy can’t fix it. The kids have to figure it out and fix it themselves. If the dolphins don’t swim together, they’re doomed. Mr. Tyler has an exciting new voice in the theater and I’m interested to see what it will say when he matures a little. I’ll be listening.
Dolphins and Sharks by James Anthony Tyler, Directed by Charlotte Brathwaite
WITH: Tina Fabrique (Amenze Amen); Flor De Liz Perez (Xiomara Yepez); Cesar J. Rosado (Danilo Martinez); Chinaza Uche (Yusuf Nwachukwu); Pernell Walker (Isabel Peters).
Scenic design by Marsha Ginsberg; costume design by Zulema Griffin; lighting design by Kent Barrett; original music and sound design by Justin Hicks; video design by Andrew Schneider; production manager, Grace Richardson; production stage manager, Samantha Cotton; assistant stage manager, Tyler Matylewicz; props master, Addison Heeren. Presented by Labyrinth Theater Company, Artistic Director, Mimi O’Donnell; Executive Director, Will Berland. 155 Bank Street. For tickets: labtheater.org; 212.513.1080