Hate Restaurants reviews

So: three reviews of Hate Restaurants from the Labfest performances. Three out of three of them politely, objectively and definitively destroy it. I can’t say I blame them – without trying to wriggle out of anything, Hate Restaurants is a piece I wrote more than 6 years ago, and I honestly believe that I’m better than that now. Nevertheless, as much as I’d like to disassociate myself from the bad press, these three reviewers have done me the courtesy of engaging with the work and I am honoured and grateful enough to want to respond.

First of all, from maninisid.blogspot.com:

Pregg and I agreed that the weakest play to us was Hate Restaurants. I did not empathize with any of the eccentric characters in the play (except maybe the chubby girl who had an amazing way of laughing during her short scene). There is no connection with me, so that I could have felt what they were feeling. Is it because it was written in English by an Australian? Or is it because the layers of characterization and ironies of the cast were unclear to me? Or maybe, I just did not get it.

Much as I’d love to say ‘You didn’t get it because it was written in English by an Australian’, the truth is that you didn’t get it because there’s nothing really to get. There are no layers of characterization and irony, clear or otherwise.

Secondly, from johnryanrecabar.wordpress.com – ‘Complexity and Disengagement of the play Hate Restaurants’:

In a world that inadvertently drives everyone to insanity, holding on to that precious strand of normalcy can be pretty challenging, disregarding, of course, the fact that even the very definition of normalcy is also open to question. In the play Hate Restaurants by Australian playwright David Finnigan, the predicament of the character Toby as she confronts all the characters who are in the verge of dementia or already enmeshed within its webs plays the central theme.

I was honestly unable to comprehend at first the direction the play is heading during the first few minutes. I thought I was being led to expect something close to a deconstructionist, structuralist, or simply a surreal theatrical presentation that will go into the dangerous waters of exaggerated profundity, an act too perilous as to try to be more intelligent than the audience, considering that first and foremost art must be enjoyed, not to be dissected as if it is a piece of cadaver awaiting for an autopsy.

In all fairness, I think I should point out that I never intended Hate Restaurants to try to be more intelligent than the audience. I did hope that an audience would enjoy it rather than dissect it, but if a piece of theatre dies on stage, it’s entirely appropriate to perform an autopsy to figure out why; and Recabar is certainly thorough.

But as the play progressed, in fact it is rather long, an hour based on my estimate, the characters are allowed to unveil their true identities and there under the glaring spotlight the character’s static identities are exposed. Each has his or her simple cartoonish complexities, each representing a kind or personality devoid of any possibility to develop into a mature character that the audience can sympathize with; each is placed inside a box, and remains boxed until the play’s conclusion.

Simply put, each of them seems to represent a specific mental illness in a psych ward. A class reunion of used-to-be-patients of mental institution showing some recurring symptoms of their illnesses every now and then – the bipolar Toby, Cyclothymic Lucille, mildly autistic Billy suffering from episodic hypomania, schizoid (or simply inebriated) Louise, anorexic leader of the Little Friends of Science, and the probably-bulimic assistant to the leader of the Little Friends of Science.

Not to belabor the point, all the characters lack pathos and poignancy.

This is the crux of the review, and the key failure of the script. I don’t mind characters with ‘cartoonish complexities’ that are ‘devoid of any possibility to develop’, but the point is that if your characters are completely 2-dimensional, they’d better be so sparklingly hilarious that the audience doesn’t mind the lack of depth. Not to belabor the point, the characters in Hate Restaurants are not sparklingly hilarious.

A friend pointed out that the reason of its complexity is the fact that it has a middle-class sensibility, the members of this class being more psychologically complicated than the rest of the population. But it’s quite hard for me to agree with this view simply because all of the characters, except for the members of the Little Friends of Science that transcend class categorization, are members of the working class. In fact all of them are overworked, including the owner of the restaurant Lucille, a fact that can explain the absurdity of their actions. Moreover, this play, written by an Australian using his country’s realities as a vantage point, is simply too detached from an Aussie middle class experience.

The class reading of this is interesting, and probably the closest I came to actively reflecting my country’s realities in the play. I would suggest that two of the characters (the chef and the kitchen-hand) are working class and the other two (the waiter and waitress) are dilettante members of the middle-class (both are underachieving university students). Beyond that, I’m curious as to how Recabar feels the play is ‘too detached from an Aussie middle class experience’.

It is a complexity that went out of control, I believe. For a one-act play, the characterization fails to support the apparent simplicity of the plot. It is too much of this that made the play seems bloated and the audience, as a result, became incontinent by the play’s end.

Allow me to concur that nearly an hour is too long a running time for this piece, which should be a brisk 30-40 minute comic sketch at most.

My professor in Literature, Dr. Leoncio Deriada, in UP once mentioned in our class that incomprehensibility does not make a piece of work inferior. I beg to differ. Oh I failed to mention, Billy the Rat, has the most profound character development in the story; from a lowly, decapitated, big, black rat to a cute, docile looking rodent in the end.

And let me confess that Billy the Rat’s development from decapitated rat to docile rodent is not in the script; the most profound character arc in the play is the work of director J Victor Villareal and co.

Lastly, the most intriguing (and possibly the most damning) review of all was from mossgreentrunks.wordpress.com:

Hate Restaurants is a play I love and hate at the same time because it unintentionally gives a glimpse of how the Filipino conyotic and burgis (read those nakaka-asar-as-in-grabeh- guys from Ateneo, La Salle, and College of Business Administration in UP) probably think and act, which is stupidly funny and offensive at the same time.  I love it because I’ve many friends whose real life tragedies and dramas revolve around their crazy officemates.  I hate it because, shit, they seem to live in Mars and not in the Philippines where many people’s daily problems are getting hungry, sick, and being oppressed/exploited.  The play is utterly devoid of issues such as poverty or corruption in the country.  It’s about weird middle class people in weird middle class situations with weird cults driving every possible normal person/place under its dominion.  The characters speak in English in the accent of the conyotic yuppies in Makati.  The setting is in a restaurant that could be somewhere in Makati, Ortigas, Manhattan, San Francisco, who cares!  It doesn’t matter, because they’re all urbanites with urban concerns and urban sense of paranoia.

Plot: very sane cute girl works as a chef in a restaurant that is owned by very insane woman who’s madly in love with her insane and supercilious macho but nerdy-looking chef employee who himself hates everyone in his workplace, especially this other insane and sadako-looking manager-employee.  One day, restaurant is invaded by people from friends of science cult who look like haughty Makati office girls and who don’t eat flour, only barley.  Each person from the restaurant is eventually converted to the friends of science, and sane cute girl uses flour with all her might to defend herself  from these mad people.  There is another character in the play, the mouse, who is beheaded and who in the end reappears to kill his butcher.

(Side note: this plot synopsis is the best thing in the world and this is how I’m describing the play from now on if anyone asks.)

Okay, so this is probably satire, or making fun of the often weird-acting and weird-looking city people.  I love the way the play concerns itself with the neurosis of the middle class, their issues with co-employees, officemates, boss, and other people who have a world of their own.  For this play to be shown to a middle class audience who probably share the dilemmas of the characters in the play but who live in a third world country is so… perfect!  In one level, I can clearly relate with the problems of the sane cute girl and I can identify people I know who are exactly like the weird neurotic characters in the play.  In another level, because the play does not tell me where it is set or does not even attempt to make a statement about glaring issues about poverty or corruption – clearly the “real” truths about the place where I live – I feel alienated by the play.  It’s as if it doesn’t give a shit about theater’s moral obligation (is there?) to address gripping issues that affect/afflict its audience.  In this sense, it’s very academic.  It doesn’t have a political view or leaning to preach to its audience, it just presents the lives of a composite group – the middle class – and its sensibilities.

But Filipino middle class are nuanced by the ever present face of poverty.  Who doesn’t have a yaya who’s poor or a driver whose family lives in the squatter’s area?  And from what I’ve studied in college, middle class Filipinos do not necessarily have Western middle class sensibilities or culture capital (yes, after Bourdieu).  In short, a Filipino chef who may live in a condo unit in The Fort and drives a Honda may have different values and concerns compared to his contemporaries in Sydney or London.  She may probably have poor relatives, or parents totally dependent on her, or she may be sending several siblings to school.  The play is therefore actually very alienating even to middle class Filipinos, except maybe to those few who come from Ateneo or La Salle, grew up in gated communities, chauffeured to “safe” places in Metro Manila, and whose idea of poverty is getting a second-hand iPod instead of a brand new.

This is a criticism that I could never have anticipated, and one which I don’t think I can defend against. Hate Restaurants was a vitriolic piece of scorn directed at the miserable world of restaurant-servitude, written when I was 19 between midnight and 5am when I had to leave to start my breakfast shift at the Pancake Parlour. I didn’t and I don’t believe that theatre has a moral obligation to (consciously) address issues relating to its audience, but I believe that a well-written play will naturally reflect and shed light on these issues. Hate Restaurants is not a well-written play; let’s get that out of the way straight away. But if it had been well-written, would it still have alienated its Labfest audience? Could the script have been changed in some way to reflect the values and concerns of Filipino restauranteurs, or was it doomed to sit uncomfortably in a Manila festival no matter what was done to it?

Part of me would love to be able to palm the responsibility for the play’s failure to connect on the difficulties of translating an Australian work into the Philippines milieu. A larger part of me is convinced that it could have connected with its audience if I’d done something different; I’m just not sure what.