It’s the last line of The Garbologists at the Northlight Theatre, but it could have been the first: “Let’s go chase some trash.”
The play is about trash-collecting in New York City, but it’s also about a lot more. It’s certainly worth the chase to Northlight to see the performance. This wisecracking show manages to be funny and poignant at the same time.
In unexpected ways, The Garbologists is a mystery. Revealing too much about what happens and why would ruin the surprises. Without spoiling it, it’s safe to say the action follows two trash collectors sharing a New York City route. Marlow (Tiffany Renee Johnson) is a college-educated Black woman who’s a trash collector-in-training. Her presence is a question that’s answered later. Danny (Luigi Sottile) is a white, working-class garbage man, there because it’s what he can do and it pays well.
Marlow shows Danny little respect but it doesn’t stop him from haranguing her. Finally, he tells her that he might be smelly and moldy but he’s like blue cheese, a delicacy. The Garbologists is the same: a delicacy of a play in the disguise of a trash-collection story.
In their first days together, Danny can’t shut up. He’s going to teach Marlow everything about trash-collecting and show her how a man handles it. As annoying as his persistent directions are to her, that’s how satisfying he is to the audience. Sottile’s character is pure entertainment. His facial expressions and his physical reactions are as spot-on as his line delivery. Be forewarned: A few of Danny’s sketches are crude but they’re worth it and hysterically funny.
Marlow, on the other hand, learns it’s impossible to ignore Danny and merely tolerates him – at best. She doesn’t know it, but she has a lot to learn, not just about collecting trash but also about seeing the best in people. Johnson plays the reluctant garbage collector with a stubborn yet endearing quality.
Both Sottile and Johnson are terrific. They easily carry the two-character production. When these two unmatched and unattached characters connect with each other over a series of trash pick-ups, their bantering changes to compassionate conversation. The link to the change is “mongo,” slang in NYC for the items that trash collectors pick out and keep for themselves. Those items Marlow and Danny pick out and share with each other begin a deeper story of what brings people together no matter their backgrounds.
The set is a draw in itself. Two pieces dominate the stage: One, a giant replica of the front of a garbage truck. The other is a giant replica of the back. Somehow, the black garbage bags and discarded trash, which cover the stage, disappear after Marlow and Danny throw them in the crusher. It’s set-design magic. Other surprises are in store, too.
In this performance, the creative team deserves special recognition, especially Collette Pollard for set and projection design and Greg Hofman for lighting design. And so does the director, Cody Estie, who pulls the unlikely backdrop of trash collecting into a nonstop entertaining, appealing and thoughtful production. The opening night got a well-deserved standing ovation.
The Garbologists is at the Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard in Skokie, through Oct. 2.
Box office: (847) 673-6300
Tickets: $30 to $89, student tickets $15 (subject to availability). Discounted tickets also are available for those who show evidence of working in the theater industry.