nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
June 1, 2005
The first few minutes of Work: A Madcap Tragi-Parody of Corporate America will feel like sweet revenge to anyone who’s ever held a menial office job. The droning, meaningless jargon; the petty squabbles with people you’d never interact with by choice; the weird intermingling of sex and power; the fierceness with which the pecking order is constructed and defended—all are deftly parodied and exaggerated into violent farce by playwright Charlotte Meehan. The writing is crisp and Meehan clearly has a good ear for buzzwords. But after the first few minutes, I started wanting more from it than a shock of pleasurable recognition, and it never delivered. There are small pleasures and sharp observations floating through Work, but they’re not embedded in a compelling whole.
The setting is a corporate office, where social and occupational hierarchies are equally clearly delineated. Firmly at the bottom of both is Hope Less, a combative depressive whose offensive body odor brings complaints from the two others at her level. These two, Mary Ann and Barry Honey, are much more interested in moving up in the world—Mary Ann through competence, and Barry Honey through bootlicking (literally, at one point). Above them is Mackerel MM, a bullying middle manager; above Mackerel is Michael UM, efficient and officious; above him is Laura L. Boss, overtly relishing the perks of her power. Above them all is a mysterious voice from above, which periodically barks orders.
And then—there’s a shakeup in the powers that be. In the wake of a scandal that seems to be both sexual and financial, Laura L. Boss gets demoted, the entire staff must undergo sensitivity training (or more precisely “sensitivity to productivity” training), and Hope Less stages a somewhat improbable coup. The general trend is of an ordered world slipping into anarchy, but there’s not a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the transgressions shown or described and the chaos that results. There is violence, bloodshed, and an abortive attempt at cannibalism (both metaphorical and literal).
What’s missing is any kind of investment, in either the unfolding of the narrative or the characters. Granted, one of Meehan’s points is the inhuman or inhumane nature of the corporate world—note the generic character names—but she’s gone so far in that direction that there are no humans in the play. The characters feel schematic, like points on an infrastructure chart. Again, I know that’s partly the point, but I think that in trying to illustrate the soulless nature of the corporation, Meehan has—intentionally or otherwise—written a soulless play. There’s nothing in either character or story that makes me care about the outcome, which means the play fails at both engaging an audience emotionally and at providing commentary that hits home in a meaningful way.
This gives the actors some serious challenges. They relish the language, but ultimately they’re handicapped by the blankness of their characters. Kerry-Jayne Wilson as Laura L. Boss and Adeel Akhtar as Michael UM are the most successful at filling in the blanks and making their characters feel motivated in some way.
The production is simple but very stylish. Director Jim Simpson’s staging uses a wide, shallow space with a number of odd entrances and windows to great advantage. He creates a playing plane right in the audience’s face, one that feels almost two-dimensional at times. The constant appearance and disappearance of actors through a plethora of doors reinforces the looming paranoia, as does Greg Duffin’s echo-filled sound design. Joe Novak’s lighting, heavy on flickering fluorescents, and Melissa Schlachtmeyer’s costumes, an elegant set of variations on the gray flannel suit, create the office ambience without the need for a set.
Work succeeds at reminding us of the dark underbelly of corporate America. But it fails to place these reminders in a coherent whole whose impact lasts beyond leaving the theater.