Sunday, October 11, 2015

Theater Trends: At the Workplace

Since so much of our time and energy are devoted to work, it is only appropriate that several contemporary American playwrights have turned to the workplace as the focus of their latest plays. During the 2014-15 season, I saw seven plays set at work. While they differ greatly in their plots and techniques, they share a common bond: each uses the workplace to mirror some aspect of American society today.
First up was “My Mañana Comes” by Elizabeth Irwin in a production of The Playwrights Realm. In the kitchen of an Upper East Side restaurant, we meet four busboys. Peter (Jason Bowen), a black man with a child, is the senior among them and the only one who takes professional pride in his work. Two busboys are undocumented Mexican immigrants; frugal Jorge (José Joaquin Pérez) left wife and children behind almost four years ago to earn enough money to build them a new home. Spendthrift Pepe (Reza Salazar) is a recently arrived young man who dreams of saving enough to bring his younger brother to New York. The junior busboy Whalid (Brian Quijada), a second-generation Hispanic who lives with his parents and has vague dreams of getting a civil service job, teases Jorge and Pepe mercilessly. We follow the four through their daily rounds at work and learn what external pressures make their lives difficult. A crisis at work puts each of them to a test of solidarity. I do not generally like the use of monologues, but Irwin has skillfully incorporated them here. The actors are all very good, particularly Bowen and Pérez. Chay Yew’s direction is seamless. The set design by Wilson Chin captures the details of a working kitchen right down to the scrapes on the walls. Moria Sine Clinton’s costumes are excellent. The play illustrates the personal dimension of large social issues, including immigration policy, race relations, exploitation of the vulnerable and the corrosive effects of poverty. Playwright Irwin shows a lot of talent and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

Heidi Schreck's “Grand Concourse” at Playwrights Horizons also takes place in a working kitchen, a soup kitchen in the Bronx. Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), the 39-year-old nun who runs it is undergoing a crisis of faith. Oscar (Bobby Moreno), the handsome Hispanic handyman, affects a working-class macho facade that he doesn’t entirely feel. Frog (Lee Wilkof), a homeless regular client, struggles against mental illness. When Emma (Ismenia Mendes), a troubled 19-year-old with a reckless streak, begins work as a volunteer, her behavior has an impact on the other three, especially Shelley. The play is a series of short scenes, punctuated by blackouts, that gradually reveal the characters as they perform their jobs. Many vegetables are chopped. Director Kip Fagan does an excellent job of choreographing the work sequences. The cast is uniformly excellent. Rachel Hauck’s set design really looks like a working kitchen. Jessica Pabst’s costumes suit each character. The play examines issues of faith and forgiveness, the motivations for doing good, the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of the help proferred, the extremes to which neediness can lead and the sense of workplace community. Schreck displays a talent for creating vivid characters whom she treats with compassion and humanity. The results are both enlightening and entertaining.

In Obie winner Samuel D. Hunter’s “Pocatello”, also at Playwrights Horizons, we have moved from the kitchen to the front of the restaurant, the failing local outlet of a national Italian restaurant chain known for its soft breadsticks and salads The lead character is the manager Eddie (T.R. Knight), a sensitive gay man who does not flee Pocatello at his earliest opportunity because he feels strong roots dating back to his great-grandfather and has delusions that he can somehow forestall the closing of the restaurant and reunite, however briefly, his fractured family. His cold, distant mother Doris (Brenda Wehle) seems to want to have nothing to do with him. His older brother Nick (Brian Hutchison), who has only come back from Minnesota for a brief visit at the urging of his wife Kelly (Crystal Finn), cannot contain his eagerness to get away as rapidly as possible. Troy (Danny Wolohan, the waiter who has known Eddie since childhood, has a difficult marriage. His wife Tammy (Jessica Dickey has a problem trying to stay on the wagon. Their bright but troubled 17-year-old daughter Becky (Leah Karpel) is so environmentally concerned that she can barely eat and Troy’s father Cole (Jonathan Hogan) suffers from dementia. Waiter Max (Cameron Scoggins) is grateful to Eddie for being the only employer in town willing to hire him after his stint in drug rehab. Waitress Isabelle’s (Elvy Yost) only goal is to skim along life’s surface without making waves. The opening scene, with all ten characters onstage talking at once, is quite a tour de force. Hunter generously gives all the characters at least a moment in the spotlight that gives us insight into what makes them tick, sometimes without a word of dialogue. One look into the combination of hurt and hope in Eddie’s eyes speaks more than paragraphs. A silent moment when Tammy decides whether to take a drink of wine is almost painful to watch. Davis McCallum’s direction is superb. Lauren Helpern’s set accurately captures the look of a faux-Italian chain restaurant and Jessica Pabst’s costumes suit the characters well. The play impressed me as a big step forward for the playwright. Hunter compassionately illustrates the psychological damage caused by economic decline and a loss of uniqueness on people whose hometown has slid into a jumble of fast food joints and big box stores. 

Annie Baker may be one of our most acclaimed young playwrights (and Sam Gold, one of the hottest young directors), but I must confess with some sadness that I don't "get" her work. I find her closely observed scenes of ordinary people doing everyday things boring and banal. Her play “The Flick” at Playwrights Horizons chronicles the relationships of employees of a slightly seedy movie theater in small-town Massachusetts, likely soon to be a victim of the move to digital projection. Sam (Matthew Maher), a man in his late 30's, is breaking in a new employee, Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten, a depressed black 20-year-old. Rose (Louisa Krause), the green-haired, free-spirited projectionist, takes a shine to Avery, to Sam’s chagrin. After 90 minutes of watching Sam and Avery clean the theater numerous times and having the projector light repeatedly shined in my eyes, I had had enough. The thought of returning after intermission for another 90 minutes of same was not appealing, so I left. When the play won the Pulitzer and was remounted at Barrow Street Theatre, I felt honor bound to try again. This time around, I found the first act less annoying, because I knew in advance that there would be very little action in any traditional sense. Act Two deepens the portrayal of Avery and Sam, but does not shed much light on what makes Rose tick. There is a narrative arc of sorts, at least for Avery. I did enjoy David Zinn's perfect recreation of a movie theater that has seen better days. Baker’s mastery of the mundane does hold a certain fascination. She nails the boring repetitiveness of the low-paying jobs that so many people must endure as well as the rewards and limitations of workplace relationships.

In George Brant’s timely one-person play “Grounded” at the Public Theater we meet the Pilot Anne Hathaway), first seen as an F-16 pilot in Iraq who loves her work, especially the freedom of being alone in “the blue.” While home on leave, she meets a man who is not intimidated by her job and falls in love. After she gets pregnant, they marry and she tries unsuccessfully to adjust to the life of housewife and mother. She returns to the Air Force, but instead of being reunited with her fighter jet, she is reassigned to the “Chair Force,” serving 12-hour shifts controlling a drone halfway around the world from a chair in an air-conditioned trailer at a base near Las Vegas. At first she likes the new job with its godlike sense of power and its allowing her to return home to her husband and child every night. Gradually her attitude changes. While the carnage she caused with her F-16 never bothered her because she would be miles away before the bombs hit, her drone lingers over the target afterwards and she is forced to see the flying body parts on her screen. She also has become increasingly aware of the ubiquitous surveillance cameras in today’s America. Her work life traces a path from elation to despair. The set by Riccardo Hernandez is covered with rippled sand and there’s a pyramid in one corner. We are not in the Middle East though. This is Nevada sand and the pyramid is the Luxor in Las Vegas. The production is greatly enhanced by excellent projections by Peter Nigrini. Director Julie Taymor mostly resists stamping the play with her trademark tricks. In a time of increasing dependence on drone warfare, the play casts needed light on the psychological damage to the people who must operate the drones.

Joel Drake Johnson’s play “Rasheeda Speaking” at The New Group is notable mainly for providing juicy roles for two fine actresses, Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest, and for marking the directorial debut of Cynthia Nixon. The action takes place in the in-hospital office of Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein), a surgeon who is both smug and cowardly. The two clerical jobs in the office are filled by the white Ilene (Wiest, overwrought as usual), who has been there for eight years and loves her job, and the black Jaclyn (Pinkins), who has been there for six months and does not. The doctor wants to get rid of Jaclyn for not being a team player. When Jaclyn is out for a week suffering from exposure to mysterious office toxins (racism, perhaps?), he promotes Ilene to office manager and enlists her reluctant help to find and document reasons to let Jaclyn go that will pass muster with Human Resources. He makes clear that truthfulness is not a requirement. Whether Jaclyn is really a satisfactory employee is called into question by her generally truculent demeanor and her brusque treatment of Rose (Patricia Connolly), an elderly patient. When she catches on to the plan to get rid of her, Jaclyn fights back with mind games that threaten Ilene’s stability. The dialog is smart, but the workings of the plot are a bit repetitious and predictable. Although its various strands don’t cohere all that well, the play presents an interesting look at racism in the workplace, 21st century style.

In his new play “Gloria” at the Vineyard Theatre, Obie winner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins draws upon his experience working at the New Yorker for a few years. In Act One we meet three editorial assistants — Dean (Ryan Spahn), Ani (Catherine Combs) and Kendra (Jennifer Kim); Miles (Kyle Beltran), a college intern; Lorin (Michael Crane), a somewhat older fact checker; and the title character(Jeanine Serralles), a socially awkward longtime employee from another department. Each character is vividly sketched and the dialogue rings true. For the first 45 minutes, the play seems to be a witty workplace satire about relationships at a prestigious magazine. Then the mood abruptly shifts. The remainder of the play depicts the effects of a life-changing event on some of the people who experienced it and raises this question: when something newsworthy happens, who “owns” the story? The first act is literally a tough act to follow. In the second act, all the actors except Crane play one or more new characters. One of the play’s strengths is that, at any given moment, I had no idea where it was heading. The scenic design by Takeshi Kata captures the sterility of the modern cubicled office. The costumes by Ilona Somogyi are unobtrusively apt. Evan Cabnet’s direction is rock solid. The playwright paints an all-too plausible picture of what can happen when workplace tensions escalate as well as an unflattering portrait of today's media scene in which stories become mere fodder for the ravenous film/television/social media/publishing beast. In case there was any doubt, Jacobs-Jenkins demonstrates that he belongs in the first rank of contemporary American playwrights.

In all seven plays, the workplace provides an opportunity for the playwright to examine important social issues in today’s America. When we read about immigration policy, poverty, exploitation, charity, economic decline, cultural homogenization, dead end jobs, racism and the commodification of media, they may seem abstract and somewhat distant. By personalizing these issues through vivid characters and situations, these seven playwrights have demonstrated the rich potential for a focus on the workplace both to enlighten and entertain.

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