Smoke and Mirrors
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 25, 2007
There's a lot more going on than meets the eye in Joseph Goodrich's unsettling new play, Smoke and Mirrors. This sharply observed workplace comedy is as black as they come, as the author examines staff morale in the break room of a corporation that wants to keep a tighter leash on everyone than they initially let on.
The company in question remains unidentified for the duration of the play: we never learn what they're called or what they do. But, there sure are a lot of disgruntled employees there. Like Anita, who is having a massive personality clash with her offstage supervisor, Diane. Or Tammi, a security guard who remains at the beck-and-call of her onstage supervisor, the disarmingly friendly Moses. Then there's Estelle, who silently sits in the corner writing down everything that anyone says in a small notebook. And she's pretty quick with a concealed spray can of air freshener anytime she sees Drew and Chad, two workers decked out in blood-stained lab coats who carry a mysteriously bad smell (they usually drive half the break room out whenever they arrive). Casually observing it all is Terry, a live-and-let-live type who's quick with a joke and keeps his head buried in the newspaper.
Everything is fodder for casual banter in the break room, whether it's the latest grizzly news concerning a headless murder victim or Anita showing off pictures of her dog dressed up in a little clown suit. All topics are discussed with the same kind of casual detachment. There are also the momentarily inappropriate office gaffes. (Example: Tammi, talking about her upcoming trip to Cancun: "I hope I don't get too drunk and screw some Mexican." Oh dear.).
Smoke and Mirrors quickly turns a subtle and unexpected corner when one co-worker questions another's patriotism. A toothpick-sized American flag stuck into a cupcake sets off a verbal skirmish that escalates into an office-wide witch hunt when Moses and Tammi attempt to find the source of an anti-American company-wide email. To reveal much more, including the names of those in question, would ruin the eye-opening surprises that lie ahead for the audience (I'll say this much, though: things get racial). Suffice it to say that once the trouble begins, the seeming office camaraderie is revealed to be nothing more than...well, smoke and mirrors.
Director Nick Faust creates an authentic world of menacing discomfort. Characters sit on opposite ends of the break room engaging in stilted conversations complete with long, awkward silences. There are a lot of those in Smoke and Mirrors, but the production holds one's attention throughout because the audience can see the wheels turning inside everyone's head. Anyone who has ever worked a corporate office job will recognize the characters' half-baked attempts at communication.
I should mention that there is a lot of smoking in this play, probably more than I have ever seen on stage at one time. Confined to the Flea's intimate downstairs theatre, the room gets smoked out pretty fast. So, if you have aversion to such things, you stand warned.
Cast entirely from the Flea's resident acting company, the Bats, Smoke and Mirrors is played to perfection. Everyone does great work here, with especially strong performances from Susan Hyon as Anita, Jason Dirden as Terry, and Jocelyn Kuritsky as Estelle. And Stas May's attempt to seduce a co-worker by suggestively eating a cupcake is very funny.
Goodrich has written a well-crafted, thought-provoking play that trusts the audience to fill in the blanks, yet gives them enough information to do so. He has wit and insight aplenty, and establishes himself as a playwright to keep an eye on.