Garbologists

Tiffany Renee Johnson as Marlowe in Northlight Theatre's “The Garbologists”

Highland Park native Lindsay Joelle's “The Garbologists” follows a tried-and-true formula for buddy comedies. Two people who are polar opposites are thrown together by circumstance and find a way to work out their differences. They even discover they have more in common than they thought.

In the well-acted two-hander at Northlight Theatre, the pair are sanitation workers, trash collectors, etc. Google offers a variety of meanings for 'garbologist,' from one who uses archaeological techniques to examine the things people throw away to a humorous Australian title for a garbage man.

Danny (Luigi Sottile) is the nine-year veteran of the New York City garbage wars. A brash blue-collar white guy from Staten Island, he's got a motor mouth, a penchant for showing off and an eagerness to mansplain the job to the newbie and regale her with insider garbage jokes.  

Marlowe (Tiffany Renee Johnson) is a Black, Ivy League-educated woman with degrees in art history, more knowledge of her new job than her partner gives her credit for and a strong inclination to keep her private life private. When Danny offers to help her pick up some of the heavier black plastic garbage bags, she resentfully tells him to stick to his job of driving while she does hers.  

As their early-morning shifts pass, conversations veer from the specifications of garbage trucks to the rules and etiquette of  “mongoing,” repurposing refuse for one's own use. One object saved this way becomes an important plot point, while another hints at more going on than meets the eye, maybe even a tragedy.

Under Cody Estle's direction, the relationship unfolds slowly, haltingly enough to keep our attention, though some of the banter is boring, and some of the jokes — like the extended riffs about a box of dildos — are lame. Sottile's know-it-all Danny gives Johnson's chip-on-her-shoulder Marlowe every reason to find him irritating and, as he opens up about his troubled marriage and difficulties on the job, she reacts in a variety of ways, some of them confounding.

The actors' skillful dance is almost compelling enough to hide the script's serious flaw. In her effort to have all the pieces of her story fit together and relate to each other, Joelle not only makes the play seem contrived, she also makes Marlowe's behavior virtually incomprehensible up until the last few minutes.

That's because Marlowe has an essential piece of information about Danny that he apparently doesn't recall and we don't find out until the end. It's something that should make her incredibly sympathetic toward him, but instead she's rather sullen and hostile, especially early on. Indeed, if they are teamed up coincidentally, as I think we're supposed to believe, she might have blurted out the truth right away.

“The Garbologists” would have been a very different play in that case, though Collette Pollard's clever scenic design could have stayed the same. Amid black plastic garbage bags piled high, discarded mattresses and other detritus, it features a garbage truck cut in half with the cab on one side of the stage and the working compactor on the other. New York City skyline projections highlighted by Greg Hofman's lighting suggest the changing times and seasons, while Gregory Graham's apropos costumes and Josh Schmidt's sound design complete the setting.

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