In “we, the invisibles,” playwright Susan Soon He Stanton takes audiences to the hallways and backrooms of the United States’ service sector, where industry professionals strive to make patrons’ days and nights easier, more relaxing and fun.
The play — which opened Sunday as part of Actors Theatre’s Humana Festival of New American Plays — incorporates modern themes like the current #MeToo and immigrant rights movement to tell the stories of the workers and patrons of the fictitious New York City Hotel Lux. Here, attending to the traveling affluent classes 24/7 depends on an assortment of workers and it can be intense.
Stanton’s stories from her time working in the service industry are told through her on-stage stand-in, Susan (Rinabeth Apostol), the narrator, and a playwright who initially took a job at The Hotel Lux before attending graduate school and returned because she needed the income.
Under the rigorous direction of Dámaso Rodríguez, Stanton’s world vibrantly comes to life with a small cast of dominated by six actors playing dozens of roles. The actors illustrate an array of workers including housekeepers, managers, wait staff, chefs, security guards, hostesses, secretaries, food runners and others. Several actors flush them out with distinct and often precise accents and absorbing idiosyncrasies.
The play’s plot centers around Susan’s efforts to interview her co-workers as a step to write a new play. This is happening as she’s absorbed in the real-life story of Nafissatou Diallo — the housekeeper at a New York hotel who in 2011 brought charges for sexual assault and attempted rape against French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn. At the time, Strauss-Kahn was managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
Stanton sprinkles the script of “we, the invisibles” with details of the alleged assault and the aftermath, so that parts of the play sound like a newsreel.
Following many of these passages are portrait scenes with Rebecca S’Manga Frank embodying Diallo or Luis Moreno portraying Strauss-Kahn. Frank plays a range of scenes including working as a housekeeper at the hotel, being questioned by lawyers, and her life years after the incident. Moreno flaunts callus arrogance as he saunters the stage with a swagger. Both hit the mark with their accents and are able to quickly turn around and convincingly portray a host of other completely different personalities.
Frank further impresses with her portrayal of Patty, a wisecracking Puerto Rican lesbian chef, and Dreshawn, a sweet but slick-talking head bellman.
Moreno conjures many characters including French actor Gerard Depardieu, a famous unnamed British playwright and director who hits on Susan and a former lawyer from Colombia now working at the hotel.
Tricia Alexandro also takes on a host of varying personalities — Aida, an attendant from Kosovo; Kara, a cocktail waitress from Vermont; and Kate, a British journalist. Actors William DeMerrit, Kurt Kwan and Emily Kuroda round out the cast.
Apostol as Susan gives a performance that helps sustain the energy of this play, even when the stories become confusing.
Separate from the script, the teamwork of Scenic Designer William Boles and Lighting Designer Gina Scherr helps pull an onlooker into this world. Their stage, accentuated by soft white and purple lighting, includes a hostess area, cocktail lounge, bar and a gleaming kitchen slides out from the side of the stage to reveal itself when necessary.
Throughout “we, the invisibles,” Susan watches her co-workers strive to reach their own dreams. At times, they succeed, sometimes not.
All the while, she continues interviewing and not writing. Meanwhile, a stream of eccentric characters stream across the stage — including a Jewish mystic (played by Moreno) who tells her, “You are strong but you choose to doubt, you choose to be weak.”
While Susan doesn’t give it much thought when she hears it, this insight later comes back to haunt her.
Big ideas and personalities abound in this script that stitches numerous short scenes together, with characters making brief appearances. But the script binds them using a common thread — the subject of the hotel’s history and its workings. The scenes of hotel staff workers’ stories are like dramatic swatches of the quilt while another part is made up of swatches representing Susan’s ambitions, background and feelings regarding Diallo’s story. There is so much going on, oftentimes the overall arch of a story is unclear. Only in the end do we see or are able reflect much on how both sides relate to Susan’s self-doubt and uncertainty and how they help her decipher her own identity.
Elizabeth Kramer is on Twitter @arts_bureau and on Facebook at Elizabeth Kramer – Arts Writer.
we, the invisibles
March 25 – April 8, 2018
Part of the 42nd Humana Festival of New American Plays
More Humana Festival reviews can be found here.