There’s lots to like about Theresa Rebeck’s The Way of the World just as my DC Theater Arts colleague Sophia Howes points out in her review. The show is the Folger Theater’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival production.
There is one particular heavenly Rebeck-created character that in her earth-bound qualities delivers a critical subversive punch that neither goes limp nor becomes paper thin. There is one specific character who lifts Rebeck’s play beyond just good laughs at the expense of broadly sketched-out, unlikable, whining, ultra-rich folk we are meant to feel superior to.
Who is that Rebeck persona that so caught my notice? That character doesn’t even have a name. She is known as her position in life. She is the Waitress. Being nameless is appropriate given her stature as a working serf. After all, the high-end characters only care about their equals or those they want to bed. (OK, personal note. I once was a server in an upscale Jersey shore seafood restaurant, I have some experience in being without a name other than “hey, you.”)
As performed by Ashely Austin Morris, the Waitress has a magnetic quality that makes The Way of the World a lasting, acerbic, sometimes caustic treat. Together with playwright and director Rebeck, Morris establishes the Waitress as an affable, quietly rebellious, fiber-rich character. The Waitress is an “everywoman” attempting to survive a tough life in an unforgiving gig economy trying to find a way to be uncaught while being transgressive.
With manic dueling on-stage personalities, Morris’s depiction of the Waitress is a marvel. She can be all quiet, controlled obsequiousness with tensed body and deep sad eyes, serving drinks to rather nasty people one moment; then during scene changes as the only person on stage, she is all high-energy exuberance, insecure mannerisms, delivering withering stand-up comic riffs so we the audience don’t fall prey to the rich as human beings. After all, as Rebeck writes them, the rich folk are mainly those who count their tchotkes, try to practice what they call good sex as their drug of choice, or find other means of existence.
In scene-stealing, stand-up comedy, breaking-the-fourth-wall monologues, Morris as the Waitress becomes a comic Greek Chorus full of tics, nervous shaking, arms reaching up to make herself bigger with a mouth that can go sideways to emphasize things she says. Morris just comes off as relatable and likable even after some flaws surface. But I didn’t give a damn about any flaws. I rooted for her with her big heart, her pain, and her shame.
So, wanting to know more about the character of the Waitress. first I went to playwright/director Theresa Rebeck. I learned that the Waitress character including her fourth-wall-breaking monologue work is not improvisation. The Waitress, with some of the best, most lacerating and heart-felt dialogue in The Way of the World, is “all in the script,” said Rebeck in an email interview.
David: Why did you cast Ashley Austin Morris in the role as the Waitress? Did you know she did stand-up comedy?
Theresa Rebeck: I actually didn’t know she did stand up. The casting agent had called her in for a different part and while I was watching her I thought… she’s the Waitress! So I send her back into the hall to look at the sides and she came back in and nailed it. She has a buoyant sadness about her; once in rehearsal I called the character a “happy loser” which made Ashley laugh.
Once you cast Ashley Austin Morris, did that change your original notions for the Waitress role? The audition notice for the part says: “WAITRESS (20s-30s): Female. A naïve young woman who enjoys rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous as she serves them cocktails. Simple and sweet but with a sly streak.”
The character is that. Ashley’s open-hearted delight in talking to the audience sustains it in a spectacular way.
Then I went to Ashley Austin Morris for her insights.
David: How do you connect with the role as the Waitress?
Ashley Austin Morris: I love her hope and determination. Even if it’s misguided or maybe just a product of our society… I love the idea that she believes she can rise above her station in life by hard work… and when that doesn’t work well, she gets creative. I love that. I deeply relate to it. The Waitress has a desire to be invited to the party (the party of life) and the belief that if she just works hard enough she will be. It’s the American dream really (maybe even the human dream?), and I relate to the sadness that maybe that dream doesn’t exist. But like the Waitress, I will probably always chase it, and believe that if I just work hard enough or with enough love… I’ll be “part of.” I think it’s sweet and its sad… we all kind of just want to be part of what we think is better than us. I love that about her. It’s made me have a little empathy for that part of me.
How does your performing arts experience impact your performance as the Waitress?
I am also a stand-up comic, so the role of the Waitress is nice because I get to be with my favorite scene partner … the audience! This is a heavenly job for me because I love addressing the audience like I do in stand up, but stand up is a solo profession and I enjoy building things with other people. So to be in a play that also allows me both to interact with the audience and to play with other actors, is just magic for me. I love watching my cast mates, I love setting others up for a laugh and I love building something in community. That’s really all I ever want to do in life. Make fun things with fun people.
What is your favorite part of The Way of the World?
My favorite part of the show is the party scene. I get to act with other people and I feel we all throw each other the ball, and that, for me, is the very best! I love when I am in a cast and we dance together like that! I mean not literally dance… don’t come here thinking that there’s a tap number!
What’s next for you after The Way of the World?
After the run of this show, I will return to New York City and begin workshops for my solo show. I have some stand up gigs and I’ll go back to walking around the city for hours thinking completely useless thoughts which is my very favorite thing to do! Maybe I’ll get a TV show this year…I mean wouldn’t that be great? I think I would be a great celebrity because I say stupid things so often that it would be good for the magazine business, ya know?
Anything you would like readers to know about you beyond The Way of the World?
Back in New York City, I will also go back to my charity work. Since people are reading this, I would love to plug! It’s a charity called Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, and we visit home-bound and isolated seniors. We bring them flowers and celebrate holidays with them and it’s a wonderful organization. I hope you will look it up, and mostly I hope you will give a little time or cup of coffee to the next lonely elderly person you see. Wow, I have so many hopes! I’m having the best time. I’m so thankful to be here. [Note: More about Ashley can be found here.]
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Theresa Rebeck (Playwright and Director)
Theresa Rebeck is best known for her plays Seminar and Mauritius, which both premiered on Broadway, as well as Spike Heels, Bad Dates, and Omnium Gatherum, and her TV show Smash. Upcoming projects the world premiere of Downstairs, starring Tyne and Tim Daly. Theresa and composer Josh Schmidt are adapting the film Dance, Girl, Dance, as a stage musical, and she has created a stage adaptation of the fable Stone Soup with John Weidman. Theresa adapted and directed the film version of Poor Behavior and directed her original screenplay for Trouble, starring Anjelica Huston and Bill Pullman. Other films include Harriet the Spy, Gossip, Sunday on the Rocks, and Seducing Charlie Barker, an adaptation of her play, The Scene.