The race to the bottom is long and ugly. We see that with brutal clarity in James Anthony Tyler's brilliant new play, Dolphins and Sharks, now receiving its world premiere with Labyrinth Theater Company at the Bank Street Theater. Granted, it doesn't look much like a theater these days: When we walk in, we swerve around a mountain of boxes and packing peanuts to get to our seats. Copiers and computer workstations sit on ugly, oppressive red carpet in Marsha Ginsberg's uncanny yet functional scenic design. This is Harlem Office, the office supply store of your nightmares.
Xiomara Yepez (Flor De Liz Perez) sharpens pencils at a glass display counter as we enter. She's a sales associate, but she hopes to become store manager now that the reign of the hated Terrell has come to an end. Mr. Timmons (the real decision-maker of the company, who remains tellingly absent from the stage) has tasked her with interviewing Yusef (Chinaza Uche), a recent NYU graduate (in philosophy) who really needs a job. Xiomara is hesitant to hire someone with no customer service experience, but fellow sales associate Isabel (Pernell Walker) convinces her to give him a chance.
Isabel trained Xiomara, something that becomes a source of friction when Xiomara is promoted over her. Isabel is convinced that Mr. Timmons would never promote her because she is heavy and black. Between janitor Danilo (Cesar J. Rosado) doing a poor job cleaning the bathroom and Isabel giving free copies to a store regular, Miss Amen (Tina Fabrique), Xiomara is in the unenviable position of disciplining her friends and carrying out the orders of a man largely insulated from the human consequences of his decisions.
The plot bears a striking resemblance to Lynn Nottage's Sweat, but while that play examines the death of the industrial economy that was, Dolphins and Sharks looks at the service economy that is. It's a nickel-and-dime game that pits middle management against rank-and-file employees, with unions nowhere in sight. We indignantly watch as increasingly unreasonable performance goals are met through a combination of inspirational platitudes and coercion, a noxious cocktail cooked up in a management seminar in hell. Encapsulating the cruelty of 21st-century capitalism in one retail outpost, Tyler conveys a gut-level understanding of this world in which more and more is expected for less and less.
Director Charlotte Brathwaite builds the tension of this seemingly mundane workplace drama slowly and surely, leaving us gasping for breath by the end. Her choreographed transitions disorient us, so we are never sure where the play is going. Video designer Andrew Schneider, lighting designer Kent Barrett, and sound designer Justin Hicks accompany these transitions with hallucinogenic collages of sound and imagery, giving us the feeling of being trapped in the Matrix. Certainly, everyone in this play is the subject of forces beyond his or her control.
The production benefits from excellent performances: Walker is razor-sharp as Isabel, dispensing deadly shade with maximum efficiency. Her performance is so sympathetic that we come to see her resentment as justified, even if we recognize it as counterproductive. Perez inhabits her role with poise and dignity, struggling to keep a sunny demeanor even as she begins to lose her footing.
As Yusef, Uche combines a shifty smile with invasive physicality, making us wonder if his character is just socially inept or playing mind games. A Nigerian immigrant with a philosophy degree, he is unquestionably the outsider in this world. We watch the youthful optimism drain from his face as he experiences a baptism by fire: The world is nothing like the one he read about in college. He makes $9 an hour, but Sallie Mae expects $900 a month. As the play progresses, we can feel the sweaty desperation emanating from his soul.
Free-market apologists might say that the problem here is one of attitude: When Yusef inquires about Mr. Timmons raising his wage to the rate he was promised when he took the job ($13 an hour), Xiomara responds, "He didn't give me a date, but he did say that if you do everything you're supposed to do, then it'll happen." Yes, and if you say all your prayers, you might also get to heaven. Mr. Timmons knows that his employees will go the extra mile without any extra compensation, just the vague promise of future rewards. To hammer that point home, Brathwaite has Danilo vacuum the hideous red carpet during intermission (no break for him). It doesn't make a difference: His job is the next on the chopping block.
As our characters fight over an ever-decreasing slice of the pie, the elephant in the room quietly hums in the background, completely detached from the human drama: "This technology is taking over," Danilo observes as he looks toward several large copiers hiding behind a column. "Pretty soon we're going to all be slaves to the machines." Truer words were never spoken. The machines don't talk back. They don't resent the boss. They don't ask for a raise. They don't even get paid! Tyler and Brathwaite present the harrowing reality of the coming automation revolution largely without comment and certainly without even the hint of a solution. It's a strikingly accurate depiction of where we are as a society: inward-looking and totally unprepared for what comes next.