The Garbologists tells a story of how we hold on, let go, and remember—told through things we set out on the curb.
By Yvonne Hudson
Lindsay Joelle‘s script is delightfully intimate, surprising, and profound, filled with sometimes unexpected laughter and even tears. Titled for the archeological study of trash, the play mines the territories of external perception and the human heart.
City Theatre’s production began in the script’s development during its 2019 Momentum series. This collaborative world premiere finally appears at City two “seasons” later and on the heels of partner company Philadelphia Theatre Company’s November 2021 production.
The timing feels right as we have collectively taken a breath—then put our masks back on to step into the theater to again sit in the dark to shed light on life through such stories. The doses of comedy and realism in The Garbologists not only pick us up but delivers a tale of two contrasting coworkers who find a new perspective while collecting refuse on the streets of New York.
A sort of odd couple, Danny, a veteran sanitation worker, and Marlowe, a new employee assigned as his partner, meet on their first day on the road. As the workdays and weeks roll on, revelations about their own life journeys unspool.
Jason Babinsky is Danny, a Staten Island divorced dad with a lot to say—so much that he seems to never stop talking. This guy knows a lot about the giant truck he drives and even more about the meaning of the mountains of bags waiting for trash collection workers on city sidewalks.
A genuinely street-wise philosopher, he’s been around long enough to “read the street” and advises Marlowe to also grasp the possibilities their workdays present. Danny explains the meaning of endless piles of bags at a given address. In New York, there’s not much space to take on others’ stuff, hence the incredible piles of rejected things. It’s a picker’s gold mine, while some of the contents of bags, Danny shares, might to downright dangerous.
Bria Walker is Marlowe, obviously well-educated, and in this job for reasons not related to her degrees and Brooklyn Heights pedigree. She’s read books, not streets, and something happened to her that led her to consider this very physical union job. When Marlowe suddenly shares her unthinkable reality, the pairs discover an unshakable common ground.
The actors convey the collaboration of the two workers while carrying their complementary characterizations and an impressive trajectory. Danny dubs his smart colleague “Shakespeare,” The joke’s on him as she’s apparently named for Will’s rival playwright Christopher Marlowe. We hear about Marlowe’s professorial parents and Danny’s sweet son and his ex-wife.
Babinsky and Walker are on stage almost all of the time, performing the tasks of the trade—heaving endless bagged trash, awkward objects, and even a full mattress into their truck. A few moments for slight costume changes or when other cheerfully male some minimal scene tweaks are all the actors get out of audience view.
Director Monteze Freeland mines the range of both the actors and space. Freeland deftly defines the personal and professional spaces while accenting how they intersect—a cell phone call, emotional triggers that pop up, and the breaks for the restroom or coffee on the route. One can imagine that reading this script could be powerful and entertaining, so it’s even more so staged in City’s intimate space.
Narelle Sisson‘s set is the other star. Yet, another amazingly complex and compact set on City’s proscenium stage, filled with mountains of filled trash bags. It’s a massive range of items destined for the landfill. From a vintage illuminated Santa and Bud beer sign to boxes of mysterious things that provide some fun moments when the collectors dare to take a peek. Center stage has a clever trash truck cab that moves. Right and left are two truck backsides with the crushing compression mechanism. Lovely touches include suggestions of home spaces, a coffee shop, places to land, and ubiquitous mail crates on the route.
Madison Michalko‘s costumes depict Danny’s well-worn overalls and Marlowe’s new ones while providing the characters with some lovely variations for settings beyond their trunk. Lighting by Jorge Arroyo and sound by Karen Graybash support the scenic transitions and critical moments.
The commitment to new plays yields many memorable experiences at City Theatre, where show posters representing 45 years follow the staircase. Momentum returns May 16-21 after a two-year hiatus. Many stories are heard at City, and it’s thrilling to hear this newest one told by characters who talk trash. (You didn’t think I would end without saying that, did you?)
The Garbologists runs through May 22 on the main stage. Vaccination cards are required at the door. Masks are required in all spaces but may be removed for refreshments in the lounge. For show details and upcoming productions, visit City Theatre.