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Night Work at Alleyway

Playwright and Alleyway Theatre founder Neal Radice was doing a Google search on an unrelated topic when he unwittingly happened upon an episode from his own family history. It seems that back in 1917 his great-grand-uncle, Joe Radice, ran a restaurant on Main Street in Buffalo where the Andrews Theatre is now located. For years the place was famous for enticing customers with chickens roasting on rotisserie spits right in the front window.

This would make for little more than a nostalgic anecdote had New York State not passed one of those “protective” labor laws, ostensibly intended to shelter women from exploitation but actually designed to put them at a disadvantage in a competitive employment market. Joe Radice’s waitresses served tables until midnight, and the new law made it illegal for women to work in this capacity past 10pm. They could do the same job at hotel restaurants past 10pm; they could work in restaurants as entertainers past 10pm; but they could not carry food from the kitchen to the dining room.

Similar “protective” laws of the era prevented women from being employed at any job requiring them to lift more than 15 pounds—less than the weight of a year-old child or a Thanksgiving turkey.

Uncle Joe was fined $20. And as Radice explains in his program notes, “Ah, but if he’d paid the fine, there’d be no play tonight.”

Uncle Joe wouldn’t pay. The result is Night Work, which opened last week at Alleyway Theatre.

After some digging, Neal Radice located the transcript of the 1918 trial held in Buffalo. From this remarkable artifact he derives a story of feminism, ambition, greed, and determination set in Buffalo during World War I.

The strength of the play is Radice’s talent for conjuring fully dimensioned characters from the trial transcript: Anna Schmidt, the woman whose husband’s enlistment in military service prompts her to take an evening shift as a waitress, played by Eliza Blake; her adoring German husband, Karl, played by Tyler Brown; her best friend, widow May Griffith, who finds her a job and whose will to survive serves as an inspiration, played by Bethany Sparacio; Margaret Hook, good-hearted, no-nonsense woman who trains the young waitreses, played by Joyce Stilson; unflinchingly sexist New York State labor attorney Frederick Cunningham, played by Darryl Hart; Senator William W. Hill for the defense, played by Roger VanDette; Dr. Franklin Gramm, played by George Collins; famed Buffalo hotel operator William J. Statler, played by Timothy Patrick Finnegan.

Each is distinct. All seem real.

As Radice adapted the story to the stage he found that his own uncle was a minor character. At center stage are the women who recognized that the fight against true labor abuse was being used to disguise pure sexism.

The actors in the character roles are particularly strong. Sparacio is excellent as May Griffith, and manages to extract genuine laughter from her courtroom testimony. Stilson is a convincing and steady presence. Jacquie Cherry gives a persuasive performance as waitress Hattie Chambers. Terry Braunstein adds delightful comedy as a variety of idiosyncratic characters. Finnegan is very entertaining in several roles.

At times the script is too long on the occasionally repetitive trial transcript, a flaw that could easily be remedied. One imagines that it was difficult to decide which gems of real-life testimony should be cut, and the play does make a confident and engaging first outing. Audiences fascinated by local history should take notice.

Night Work continues through October 5. See the On the Boards for details.