Toast by Richard Bean and directed by Eleanor Rhode is a slice-of-life working class comedy with ironic undertones. Toast is Presented by Snapdragon Productions in association with Jagged Fence Theatre as a part of their Brits Off Broadway season at 59E59 Theaters. The two act play with a 15 minute intermission boasts an all-male cast of seven whose fine acting drives the production.
The setting is a canteen in a bakery factory in the 1970s where workers take their breaks, eat lunch, and generally decompress during their allotted unionized rest time. All of the action takes place in this lounge area where the men converse, joke around, and attempt to “blow off steam” before they once more tackle the humdrum work load of hard hours on late night shifts that on this particular evening because of an additional order will end at 4:00-5:00 am. In Bean’s choice of the bakery setting, the playwright places an ironic emphasis of the mediocrity these working class individuals must confront as they make “dough” to sustain their hard scrabble life to keep “off the dole.”
The play occurs in real time. The director mirrors the boring tedium and drudgery the men confront daily which we experience in the crawling first act. In this act very little action occurs as we are introduced to bits and snatches of the men’s lives as they interact with each other during their break from mixing bread dough and working near the baking oven of the big plant upstairs. Their conversation reveals their down-to-earth interests in sports, sex, and their mates and is far from politics, world events, or the more refined cultural aspects of society. Their jokes are rough and male chauvinistically based, and the playwright reveals in the first act how the routine of the days has mostly sucked their lifeblood of enthusiasm. Into their mix comes Lance Bishop, a student (John Wark), whom some of the men don’t believe will last because he will not be able to align himself with the hard demands of the job.
From their discussions, we arrive at Bean’s sociological portrait of the working classes who are confined by their lack of education and limitations to obtain more meaningful employment which would engage them and inspire them to use their intellect and native intelligence instead of just having to “go through the motions” of the deadening factory routine. Although the bakers are unionized and are paid adequately for their time, the nature of the work doesn’t allow them to contribute something meaningful of themselves past their physical labor. Clearly, this takes its emotional toll.
We are struck by the banality of their existence at this job which consumes their energy and ages one over the long haul as is evident in Bean’s characterization of veteran Nellie (a laconic, and appropriately leaden performance by Matthew Kelly), who has worked there the longest and who has been slowly sapped by the unseen force of daily mundanity. Through the contrast of Nellie with the younger personalities, we see a shadow cast of what may happen if they remain there having to deal with the sameness of the days which will wear them down. Indeed, they are in a cage, lured by the pay they receive putting in rotating twelve to sixteen hour days, night shifts, six days a week with little time off on the weekend before they must arrive back on Sunday to make the next batches of loaves and rolls for the following days, weeks, years.
A recent strike has actually yielded less in a raise than what the union promised. We gather from the men’s comments that this particular plant is in a state of decline as the men refer to competitors who are upgrading their factory technology. The competition may threaten their future job security which concerns the men. It is apparent that the owners “hold all the cards,” as we divine at the outset of the play during shop steward Blakely’s (Steve Nicolson), phone conversation with Beckett who tells him the men must stay until morning to complete an additional order.
As they attempt to decompress, they discuss the ovens and are obviously encumbered by the routine work so that the break is not a break; it isn’t long enough or entertaining enough for them to intellectually escape. It is then we understand that the labor is so mechanical and repetitive, there is little in the way of charged intellectual creativity. And their involvement as they engage with one another provides little uplifting stimulation except for the game of cards they play and even that is lackluster. Their general malaise as they attempt to cope with the nullifying atmosphere at a job they neither appreciate nor enjoy gently erupts into frustration against each other and at the union shop steward at various points during the play.
Just at about the point when the audience is stretched to exasperation at the inertia of the men and their tiresome boredom, Bean cleverly turns the action sideways. The oven jams. Bread production is halted and the bakers are stymied. Either they go home and the blame is leveled on Nellie, who believes he made a mistake, or they stay and attempt to problem solve. However, the ramifications are clear. If they all go home, they will be paid, but management will most likely take it out on them. If the men don’t use their ingenuity and experience to problem solve and work together to correct the situation and get the order in, their competitors will be hired to complete the job that their factory has reneged on. All will suffer. However, to correct the oven jam will involve danger and someone may be cruelly burned.
Bean and the director with the help of the design team and actors have created a fascinating look at the impact of factory work, the nullifying aspects of employment that requires little collaboration or productive use of individuals past their physical labor. The production rendered through real time forces one to examine the extent that employment for a boss even though unionized aligns with enslavement and self-victimization. It is only when the men are forced to problem solve and actively collaborate in Act II, that we understand the extent to which their efforts as human beings are largely underestimated and completely underutilized. Indeed, thematically, Bean and the director aptly question the efficacy of such a destructive system and employment model which allows the waste of human experience, talent and ingenuity.
The play is prescient in that it foreshadows the exit of the factory model out of developed countries and into undeveloped countries whose workers are experiencing the same wasting away of their vitality, while owners reap the greater profits at a fraction of the non union cost. As has been evident with the response to workers making Apple products in China (nets had to be put up around buildings because of suicides), the model continues to deaden and destroy, and human ingenuity and vitality is siphoned off in terrible wastefulness. Sadly, what choice do workers have in order to make money to get to the next day where there is more of the same?
This is a fine production which raises important questions about the nature of employment for others and the deadening aspect of work for hire. Toast with spot-on acting by Matthew Kelly, Simon Greenall, Steve Nicolson, Will Barton, Kieran Knowles, Matt Sutton, and John Wark will be at 59E59 Theaters until May 22nd.