Imagine buying a ticket to a musical titled Nán Wáwá. The show is set in New York during the 1930’s and begins with three gangsters singing a catchy song about gambling on horse races. Absolutely nothing about this musical is Chinese—so why isn’t the show’s title Guys and Dolls?
This scenario pertains to just one of the confusing aspects of Mai Dang Lao, a world premier produced by the Sideshow Theater Company at Victory Gardens’ upstairs theater. Mai Dang Lao is the name used for McDonald’s restaurants in China, yet any connections between this stage play and China exist solely in the playwright’s bio (David Jacobi has performed in theater companies in both America and China).
The play is based on a series of disturbing incidents that occurred over a period of about 15 years—the most heinous in Mount Washington, Kentucky, in 2004. A con artist called grocery stores or fast food restaurants and, pretending to be a police officer, reported to management that an employee had been caught stealing. The con artist then instructed a manager via the phone to perform a strip search to find the missing money. In a few cases like Mount Washington, a manger followed directions without question and ultimately perpetrated a sex crime against an innocent victim.
From the opening minutes of Mai Dang Lao, Jacobi is never able to find the correct balance between examining a real-life incident and creating an original story. Perhaps setting the play in China at an actual Mai Dang Lao restaurant would have provided the distance necessary to examine this topic with integrity.* However, as written, the setting is clearly an American McDonald’s. The characters refer to McDonald’s openly and the signs advertise current McDonald’s deals with empty spots wherever the golden arches might appear.
Sophie, the protagonist and soon-to-be-victim, is defined at the start of the play by one characteristic: she does not care about her job. She has given her two-weeks’ notice, and she entertains herself by pushing the boundaries of insubordination toward the two managers that take their work too seriously. Jacobi attempts to establish credibility for later events by giving managers Roy (Matt Fletcher) and Kara (Lanisa Renee Frederick) motivation to put Sophie in her place. When Kara initially accuses Sophie of stealing from the register, Sophie’s reactions are appropriate to the character—she refuses to go into the manager’s office, she refuses to give up her phone, she states that she will call her mother. Why does she then go into the office when her only plausible reaction is to walk out the door, leaving behind this job that she despises?
To fill in the play’s 80-minute running time, Jacobi bombards his characters with a series of fast food employee stereotypes. Kara interacts with an acquaintance from school and is embarrassed to be working in a McDonald’s. Mike (Andrew Goetten), a stoner saving to buy a car, slices his hand in a machine used to cut French fries (don’t McDonald’s French fries arrive pre-cut?) and is forced to take a drug test before getting any medical attention (company policy?). Nancy, a self-important nerd, has a milkshake splattered on her through the drive-through window and proceeds to scream her way through a breakdown.
Most perplexing of all, during the play’s climax, Sophie is confronted by Roy in the office and precedes into a monologue framed by a series of sentences beginning with the words “I hate.” “I hate that this really happened.” “I hate that he only needed to call five places before this happened.” “I hate that I had to get drunk to write this scene.” Dealing with the sexual encounter in a way that is appropriate for the audience and that is true to the source material would be a challenge for any playwright, but Jacobi’s strategy of using abstraction to channel the playwright into the script was not the answer.
The great flaw in Jacobi’s script is that he is restating a story that has already been told. Notably, one of Sophie’s recriminations was “I hate that no one remembers that this happened,” which is a false statement—I, for one, not only remember it (that’s why I was curious to see Mai Dang Lao) but also remember the reactions. Following the Mount Washington incident, the media examined how the follow-directions, ask-no-questions mentality passed down to employees by McDonald’s corporate impacted this tragedy. Sideshow Theater Company should be commended for mounting an original work, but unfortunately Jacobi’s script lacks the original interpretation needed to properly address this subject.
*For an exceptional short story that examines an American-style fast food restaurant in modern China, considering reading Ha Jin’s “After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town,” the last story in his collection titled The Bridegroom.