By David Jacobi
Directed by Marti Lyons
Produced by Sideshow Theatre Company
Dark Comedy Tries to Have it Both Ways
I’ll say this for Sideshow’s world premiere of Mai Dang Lao: it never stops being interesting. This drama by David Jacobi is described as “chilling” and “terrifying,” and based on the real-life events that inspired it, that’s to be expected. In 2004, a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky, received a call from someone claiming to be a police officer. That person told the staff that an employee was suspected of theft, and the manager detained the employee in the office, where she was sexually assaulted by the manager’s boyfriend, in compliance with the fake police officer’s instructions. But Mai Dang Lao (the Chinese name for McDonald’s, and a particularly perplexing title) is about the exploitation of minimum wage workers more broadly, and attempts to represent this through satirical humor, until the last ten minutes of an eight-five minute play, when things suddenly get extremely bleak. The mixture doesn’t quite hold together upon examination.
The first voice we hear is that of an irate customer cussing out Sophie (Sarah Price), the cashier, because the person at the drive-through window took too long delivering her food. And no, says the voice, she will not pull up to the white line, the workers need to bring her sandwich and cup full of sauce to wherever in the drive-through she decides to idle her car. Sophie’s manager, Roy (Matt Fletcher), apologizes profusely, and reminds his workers of the importance of eliminating lag-time and customer complaints. Sophie says this is a perfect example of why she has already given her two-week notice.
Roy had long accused Sophie of not being a team-player, and now that she’s leaving, she barely pretends to respect him or the supervisor, Kara (Lanisa Renee Frederick). Not that there’s much reason why she should. Sophie’s obnoxious in a dozen ways, but Roy and Kara are established as clueless, self-righteous imbeciles from their first lines. Fletcher and Frederick’s performances will remind you of every unfair pseudo-authority figure exercising petty power you’ve ever encountered, so of course they immediately fall for “Officer Bill” (Jim Poole). Kara loves the drama of a police investigation and takes satisfaction in destroying people who think they’re entitled to special treatment like respect, and Roy sexually desires Sophie and is furious with her for servicing nearly every man they know except him. For Roy, Officer’s Bill’s order to strip-search and restrain Sophie is a dream come true, not that he’d ever admit it, even to himself.
Interspersed with scenes of Roy and Kara tormenting Sophie in the office are the much more mundane degradations in the kitchen. Mike (Andrew Goetten) is the closest thing to a friend Sophie has at McDonald’s. A handsome stoner whose dream is to buy a car so he can do doughnuts in the parking lot, Mike’s altered mental state and low expectations allow him to be more tolerant than Sophie of their miserable environment, but even he has limits. Nancy (Tyler Meredith), a nervous, awkward girl who’s being trained for a promotion, has a crush on Mike which he emphatically does not reciprocate. Not yet even a junior manager, Nancy loves nothing more than following Kara around and joining in on her bullying, although when they’re apart, Nancy shows more signs of a conscience and intellect. But those traits don’t wind up being useful in this script.
All the actors are perfect for their parts, the design is spot-on, and the humor is hilarious. Jacobi nails not only the capriciousness of authority, but also the absurdities of everyday interactions between bored people who don’t have much to talk about. The problem is that he was determined to incorporate the strip-search hoax into the story without making it the main focus. Of the show’s six characters, one is likable, but totally at fault for what happens to him, two are irritating, but get over-punished, and three are absolutely vile. In the exaggerated world of comedy, characters can be taken to extremes, but a call for compassion for food workers would have to make them all sympathetic (like Samuel Hunter’s Pocatello). The strip-search hoax really happened, but a serious exploration of the environment that allowed it would have been an undramatic soul-crushing grind (like Annie Baker’s The Flick). Mai Dang Lao uses its subjects for dark comedy for seventy minutes, and then attempts to shift into an overwrought, picturesque validation of their suffering at the very end. It’s a jarring conclusion, but not one which completely spoils the insights, enjoyment, and drama which came before.
Reviewed March 10, 2016
For more information, see Mai Dang Lao’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing in the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $20-30 with discounts for students/seniors/industry; to order, call 773-871-3000. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through April 10. Running time is eighty-five minutes with no intermission.