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Theatre in Review: Dolphins and Sharks (Labyrinth Theater Company)

Chinaza Uche, Pernell Walker. Photo: Monique Carboni

Capitalism and its discontents roil a Harlem copy shop in James Anthony Tyler's new drama. As rendered in Marsha Ginsberg's hyperreal set design, it's one of those too-bright places, its interior lined in white plastic siding, where one goes to get copies made or to drop off packages for delivery. The stark fluorescent lighting makes everything look extra depressing. There are televisions broadcasting something inane, like the latest episode of The Price is Right, to keep the customers distracted, and computer terminals, for those who don't have one at home. It's the sort of place that nobody with a choice would opt for a place of work.

Among those toiling there unhappily are Xiomara, a young Dominican American, who hopes to get ahead, and Isabel, a black woman edging toward middle age. Their hated supervisor has left, and, as the play begins, Xiomara is interviewing Yusuf, a recent college graduate who needs a job ASAP. His Nigerian parents are irritated at his decision to study philosophy, rather than medicine or the law, so he can't expect any help from them with his student loans. Xiomara, unimpressed with Yusuf's argument that serving as the president of NYU's Nigerian-American club was a demanding task that prepares one for a career in customer service, turns the young man down, but he presses his case, citing his favorite author, Chinua Achebe. Isabel, looking on in amusement, says, "Job market ain't no joke if folks quotin' stuff. Hook him up."

So Yusuf joins the team, Xiomara lands the manager's position, and trouble sets in immediately. The unseen boss, Mr. Timmons, leans on Xiomara to make the place more professional, which means adding uniforms and trying to make Isabel cut down on her profanity. Xiomara and Isabel, once best friends, suddenly turn frosty. Because Danilo, the janitor, isn't performing to Xiomara's standards, Yusuf and Isabel have to lend a hand. Yusuf continues to simmer because he was hired at a salary of $13 an hour, but receives only $9, thanks to a seemingly endless probation period. And money keeps disappearing from the till.

By Act II, when Xiomara is isolated in her manager's office and the firings begin, Dolphins and Sharks is looking very much like Sweat: Harlem Edition. In a scene just like one from Lynn Nottage's drama, Xiomara urges Isabel to also apply for the manager's position, setting up resentment between the two women that festers ever after. Tyler's script also in some ways resembles Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew, especially in the between-the-scenes sequences that feature stylized movement and heavily layered sound effects. (Tyler overplays his hand here, having the actors carry on like the members of a chain gang; life may be hell in that copy shop, and they may all be one paycheck away from hard times, but still.)

Nonetheless, under Charlotte Brathwaite's direction, the tension level is constantly on the rise, as the members of what was once a tightly knit little group turn on each other to protect their positions. Tyler's view of how the characters are put in Darwinian competition with each other is a mordant one, and he has a keen ear for the clich├ęs of business-speak, especially in the ghastly team-building meetings organized by Xiomara. He also has a sharp eye for prejudice among his minority characters -- for example, Isabel, who has struggled all her life, takes a dim view of a Nigerian immigrant like Yusuf, whose parents are well-off and who, she assumes, looks on down her. ("My first supervisor was an African girl named Ann when I worked at Bloomingdale's, and she had the nerve to tell me that I don't have a right to call myself African American. I had to tell that heffa just because your people sold my people doesn't mean I don't got African roots.") And the action unfolds against the background of a Harlem giving way to gentrification and redevelopment, driving out the locals who have lived there for generations.

All five roles feel fully lived in, thanks to the aces cast. As Xiomara, Flor de Liz Perez wins us over with her sparkling personality and thousand-watt smile, but she also becomes a master manipulator of her so-called friends in order to obtain a coveted promotion. Pernell Walker captures every bit of Isabel's sass and rising dissatisfaction -- getting laughs by referring to her new boss as "X-menaria" and "America Ferrara." The scene in which the two ladies face off, baring months of stifled fury, is one of the play's most satisfying. Chinaza Uche has a winning way as Yusuf, who turns out to be a much trickier customer than he first appears. There are also solid contributions from Cesar J. Rosado as Danilo, a new father who can't afford to lose his job, and Tina Fabrique as Amenze, the store's star customer, who is a little too used to getting freebies from Isabel.

In addition to Ginsberg's sprawling set and Zulema Griffin's well-observed costumes, the other designers -- Kent Barrett (lighting), Justin Hicks (original music and sound design), and Andrew Schneider (video) -- fill the scenic transitions with elaborate sound-and-light shows that, however impressive, may be a little too much for this rather intimate play. There are also moments in the action when the store's systems appear to short-circuit, setting off light chases and bombarding us with sound; during certain heightened moments, the lighting adds strong dollops of saturated color and the copy machines on stage flash on and off. All of these effects help to set up the non-naturalistic finale, in which the actors turn away from each other and confront the audience.

A lot of passion has gone into staging Dolphins and Sharks, but a little light and noise goes a long way, and the production might benefit from toning it down a bit. That doesn't mean Tyler doesn't have a knack for writing scenes that ripple with tension and confrontations that crackle. "We don't need to be fighting," cautions Amenze, near the end; as Dolphins and Sharks shows, as long as everybody is trying to elbow their way to success, nobody manages to get ahead. -- David Barbour

(2 March 2017)

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