‘La Cocina’: A slice of life inside a frenetic New York restaurant kitchen
From left, Max Reed III, Sean Alan Mazur, Biniyam Abreha, Bree Pavey / Sean Durrie

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Most of us go out to a restaurant at least once in a while. And most of us likely have strong feelings of solidarity for the workers who bring that wonderful food to our table. In the world of fast-food eateries, workers are even known to organize for higher wages and go out on strike if need be. In our “finer” dineries—where the Kardashians might come to sup—the labor may be just as hard, just as exploited, but is usually masked by the illusion of gentility and class, and a messy reality discreetly hidden in the “back of the house.”

Notice of a world premiere production in L.A. (North Hollywood, to be precise), set in a busy restaurant, was enough to impel me to the Loft Ensemble’s doors on opening night (Jan. 19). I had tasty memories of a play with a similar setting at L.A.’s Fountain Theater back in 2016, Elizabeth Irwin’s four-character, all-male My Mañana Comes, also set in Manhattan. I concluded my review of that play with a stunning prognostication: “Right now it looks like no iridescent rainbow is waiting in the wings for restaurant workers.” I was right!

I figured that seven years later—another playwright, another director, another theater and cast—surely not all that needed to be said about restaurant workers had been said.

La Cocina (The Kitchen in Spanish) is the work of playwright Tony Menéses, whom I had not previously encountered. Menéses was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and raised in Albuquerque and Dallas. His plays include Guadalupe in the Guest Room, The Women of Padilla, twenty50, The Hombres, and El Borracho. Aside from being a two-time recipient of The Kennedy Center Latinx Playwriting Award, he lists a string of associations with important theaters, festivals, drama workshops, and commissions.

From left, Alejandro Mungaray, Jay Hoshina/ Sean Durrie

La Cocina has been produced academically, at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 2023 under the direction of Adam Chambers, who directs again, but the present run is its first professional production. Chambers is the artistic director and one of the founding members of Loft Ensemble. A professor at USC and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he has directed over 100 plays in Los Angeles.

As sometimes happens when you dine out at a much-touted eating venue, the results are not always 100% satisfying. And I’m afraid that was my take-out from La Cocina.

Fact #1: The play is 80 minutes long, with one intermission. Fact #2: There are 19 (count ’em) named characters in the play, and 23 cast members listed (four roles are double-cast). Fact #3: In 80 minutes there simply is not time or space to find out who these people are, what their problems and aspirations are, or how they’re going to go about changing their lives.

Yes, a few are brought into sharper relief, as we see from their interactions. But more of them than not function like extras with barely a trace of memorable identity: this one’s a believing Muslim, that one’s a mincing queen (shamelessly stereotyped), another a homeless, hungry apparition who turns up at the street door, this guy plays the guitar and sings, that woman’s birthday cake is to die for—but it’s only for the staff, not on the menu, a man collapses in tears when he receives some bad personal news on his iPhone.

For the sake of naming all 23 actors (19 of whom you’ll see on stage at any one time), they include (in alphabetical order), Biniyam Abreha, Ben Anderson, Emilie Crotty, Paul L. Davis, Berenice Diaz, Emelie Felina, Carlos Gomez Jr., Leah Haile, Jay Hoshina, Kirsten Jones, Sean Alan Mazur, Alejandro Mungaray, Elena Nicholson, Sarah Nilsen, Bree Pavey, Max Reed III, Rose Scalish, Matthew Scheel, Chloe Scott, Nate Thurman, Dani True, Esteban Vasquez, Paige Willis. Ten of these play “Back of House” characters, and nine come from “Front of House” (waiters, a hostess, and Sylvia, the owner).

Perhaps in its defense—and as a nod to Socialist Realism—the play is not meant to have “leading characters,” just four or five who momentarily occupy the spotlight. It’s the frenetically paced, sweating, hustling working class who is the collective hero here, as opposed to the evil owner. Most of their names can hardly be recalled. This may be the microcosm of our larger society, where those who are expert at what they’re doing can’t achieve their best because the menu is so limited to the lowest-common-denominator popular taste, where job security is so tenuous, where every decent human impulse is punished, where with no union, a boss can (and will) fire workers with the snap of her fingers, where no one individual is responsible for the shoe, the automobile, the freeway, the skyscraper, the patient recovering from an operation. The chef (Monique) may have the authority to rule the kitchen, but to save her own job she must bow to the imperious owner.

The point is made, more than once, that people working here would rather be somewhere else, under better conditions. They simply have to survive. There’s the rent, student loans, medical expenses, transportation, kids….

The true “main character,” if there must be one in this nearly plotless play, is really not any one person but the frantic, teeming biosphere of the restaurant itself, the comings and goings, the shouting and noise. At several times during the play, Chambers has his actors form into a kind of orchestra, each at their own station, cathartically pounding out rhythmic beats on metal, ceramic, wood, with knives, mallets, hands. And at other moments of tension, the director switches up the lighting and creates an eerie freeze, like a still photo: An actor might enter the stage, perceive the stillness and also freeze themselves. These may represent those moments during the day when any of us might mentally shut out the entire world and focus on a single compelling thought in our head. Or maybe moments captured by a photographer documenting the hellish conditions of these sweatshops known as restaurant kitchens.

From left, Berenice Diaz, Leah Halle / Sean Durrie.

Immigration issues almost necessarily come into play. The restaurant business is notorious for hiring undocumented workers and then paying them so little, withholding their pay, or threatening them with a visit from ICE. Alejandro Mungaray as Pablo, the seafood specialist, is the closest we come to a leading character. Homophobia also arises as a key plot point. There’s a flicker or two of romance.

Mind you, they’re all wonderful actors, and what dedication to commit themselves to a play with so much cacophony on stage! Whether or not it all amounts to a filling meal is probably left to the individual theater patron. I’m full of admiration for the commitment to the collective work, but wish there had been more of a story to tell, more rounded characters with whom we might identify, and also a little more hope.

Other credits include Bree Pavey as producer, Sam Gordon as asst. director, Danielle Ozymandias as rehearsal stage manager, Ignacio Navarro as production stage manager, Skylar DeShane as asst. stage manager, Madylin Sweeten Durrie for scenic design, Jess Moreno Chayco for costume design, Tor Brown for lighting design, Mark McClain Wilson for sound design, and Natasha Renae Potts for properties manager.

In its promotional material, the Loft hopes “you will walk away reminded that you never know what someone might be going through. When you go out, a little kindness to those who are here to take care of you can go a really long way!” Amen!

La Cocina runs through Feb. 11, with performances Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 7 p.m. The Loft Ensemble is that rare company with a “Donate What You Want” policy for tickets, which are available at the company website or by calling (818) 452-3153. “Loft Ensemble exists solely because of YOUR support and with your donations. We are committed to ensuring theatre is widely accessible to all by removing ticket prices and making all of our shows donation based since June 2021. Your donations go directly to production needs for the next show and keeping the space open and running!” The Loft Ensemble is located at 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood 91602.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.