Billed as an unconventional buddy drama, The Garbologists follows two New York City sanitation workers, Marlowe and Danny, who must work together even though they dislike each other. Marlowe (Bria Walker) is a Black woman with two Ivy League degrees who has just started working for the New York Department of Sanitation. Danny (Jason Babinsky) is a white man from a working-class background who's set to make six figures after overtime this year on a route he feels adequately reflects his seniority.
The play is grounded in the physical work of garbage collection and is clearly well researched by both Joelle and the City Theatre team. According to Claire Drobot, co-artistic director and production dramaturg, Walker and Babinsky did ride-alongs with city garbage collectors, and the set even includes some actual Department of Public Works equipment.
The two maneuver through a sprawling set, designed by Narelle Sissons, gradually loading all of the refuse piled around into the back of one of two garbage trucks on stage. Sissons is especially good at split-level sets, like this one, that offer a cross-section of multiple spaces at once, allowing the stage to accommodate scenes in the garage, on the street, in the truck, and at two nearby businesses without extensive scene changes. (Unfortunately, even so, the production loses momentum in scene changes that last too long.)
Danny talks too much for Marlowe. Marlowe wants Danny to respect her enough to let her make her own mistakes. Danny mansplains to her, sure, but he also sees the job’s dangers, like accidentally getting pricked by used needles poking out of garbage bags or squirted with acid, in a way that Marlowe doesn’t. He doesn’t find her incompetent, he just cares about the work and wants to help. Predictably, they find common ground, which is an accomplishment not because they are actually different, but because the audience is expected to assume that their different identities automatically render them incompatible.
calls him a “mansplainer,” sugarcoating Danny’s views, which echo men’s rights talking points about how the legal system discriminates against men). Both have fraught familial relationships involving their children, both are put upon by large, often predatory institutions, and both need (or feel they need, for Danny) more money than their earning potential can bring them. It’s no feat to empathize with someone whose situation so closely resembles your own.
Even though Marlowe and Danny are not exactly a parable for building solidarity across differences, they are compellingly and empathetically rendered by Walker and Babinsky. Babinsky is eminently likable as Danny. His dialogue waxing poetic about how you can tell by sight which garbage bags contain which kind of refuse if you “read the bags” is some of the show’s best. Walker brings depth and feeling to her role that almost makes up for the play devoting less time to her arc than Danny’s and, arguably, making Danny too likable and Marlowe not likable enough. Joelle’s description of Marlowe says that “even when silent, her face speaks volumes,” and Walker couldn’t have embodied that trait better if she tried.
The sound design, by Karin Graybash, features some of the best ambient soundscapes I’ve heard on a Pittsburgh stage. She mixes and isolates sounds so meticulously that her design allowed me to physically locate myself within the world of the play. Another favorite aural moment came when the humming and squeaking of the garbage truck slowly morphed into music. The sound design also contributes to this production’s significant accomplishment of convincingly setting multiple scenes in a moving truck without moving the truck. The serious coordination between actors, technicians, and designers required to pull that off is not at all lost on me.
While I don’t think it has too much to say about relationships, the play has a fairly strong critique of city dwellers’ alienation from what actually happens to our material possessions when they leave our hands (As Danny says, “Nothing’s ever gone”), which fits well with Joelle’s interest in dramatizing the overlooked. Whether or not you are used to thinking about your garbage, you are likely to find something worth keeping in City Theatre’s The Garbologists.
The Garbologists. Continues through Sun., May 22. City Theatre. 1300 Bingham St., South Side. $29-65. citytheatrecompany.org