Steven Barkhimer is a busy Boston actor and playwright, but back in the 1980s, fresh out of college, he worked at the rough-and-tumble Fulton Fish Market in Lower Manhattan. Now he’s putting that colorful milieu on stage in “Windowmen,” playing through Nov. 24 at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre.
Windowmen worked the cash windows at the market, taking fistfuls of bills in exchange for the swordfish and tuna moving off the trading floor at a furious pace. No surprise that some of that money got skimmed into their pockets, providing Barkhimer’s plot.
But the real story here is the coming of age of Ken, the playwright’s stand-in, a callow rookie whose philosophy degree isn’t much help on the job. He has to learn the ropes fast with the help of veteran windowman Vic, a garrulous Brooklynite who teaches him to fear no one. Well, except for Al, the imposing owner of their little fish company, who still wields a hook every day down on the floor.
Is cash “going south” into Vic’s pocket? Will Al figure it out? Will Ken get blamed?
An excellent cast turns out to answer those questions for Barkhimer and director Brett Marks. Alex Pollock (”The Aliens” at Company One) makes Ken’s transformation from nervous kid to hardened windowman convincing. And veteran Will Lyman, whose angular visage would surely feature in a Mount Rushmore of Boston actors, brings his usual conviction to the stern, scary, notably erudite Al.
But the surprise of the play, especially in the first act, is the terrific Brandon Whitehead, whose program bio says he recently arrived in town from the West Coast. His Vic has a beer gut and frizzy, thinning hair. Hyper and funny, he’s the master of the window, but this is as far as he’s going to go in life and he knows it. He comes off cynical and coarse, yes, but he’s also a guy who wants to do the right thing by his young charge. Whitehead is fully Vic every second he’s onstage, even when the focus is on someone else.
The relationships between these three are gritty, complex, and believable. But we miss Vic when he’s offstage for much of the second act. The focus turns to playing out the rather thin plot, which consists mostly of Al asking about missing money and his employees dodging his questions.
In smaller roles, Daniel Berger-Jones (Orfeo Group) breathes life into Lester, a floor man who’s also under Al’s suspicion. But rising star Nael Nacer can’t do much with Rocco, a one-note caricature of a sleazy, blustering customer.
There are some lapses in the production. Ken doesn’t know what to do in his first day on the job, true, but his aimless movement becomes distracting in the early going. Rocco keeps touching the forbidden cash box, but while this is made to seem as if there’s trouble ahead, nothing ever comes of it. Barkhimer and Marks could fix these and other issues easily.
There is, one comes to realize, very little talk about fish itself, and no scaly specimens in sight, real or rubber.
The Fulton Fish Market moved years ago, but even in the 1980s, change was coming. Al wants to computerize his operation, which could cost jobs and stop cash from going south. These windowmen could be headed for a bittersweet ending. But it’s a journey worth taking with them. And it will be interesting to see where in Boston theater Whitehead goes next.