Frustrating Coworkers Are Frustrating

19. February, 2011 Theater No comments

It’s hard not to compare the world premiere of What We’re Up Against to the last (and first) time artistic director Loretta Greco staged a Theresa Rebeck play at Magic Theatre, with 2009′s Mauritius, a whip-smart crime caper about rare stamps with funny, rapid-fire Mametian dialogue. The comparison is more tempting still because more than half the cast of the new play–Rod Gnapp, Warren David Keith and James Wagner–was in the prior production.

Pamela Gaye Walker and Sarah Nealis in What We’re Up Against. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.

That’s great for building up anticipation, because Mauritius was a great show, but it’s a double-edged sword. Although What We’re Up Against is an entertaining evening in its own right, it doesn’t measure up to Mauritius–or to The Scene, Rebeck’s black comedy memorably staged by Amy Glazer at SF Playhouse in 2008 (which Glazer re-creates in the feature film adaptation Seducing Charlie Barker with the female half of the SF cast).

Although there’s that same Mamet-like crackle to the dialogue in WWUA, especially in the first scene, it turns out to be a pretty straightforward satire of patriarchal office culture. The old boys running a backwater department of an architectural firm (saddled with remodels of malls, government buildings and chain restaurants) resent the bright young woman their boss hired and refuse to give her anything to do. They’ll sometimes give a project to the only other woman in the department, who’s barely competent but is patient to a fault and doesn’t make waves, but shun the smart one bursting with ideas because she’s ambitious and doesn’t know her place at the bottom of the seniority food chain.

The first scene really says it all. Over a couple of scotches, department head Stu is complaining to Ben, his best architect, about how Eliza came in wanting to work on a mall expansion, carrying one of the office golden boy Weber’s sketches and demanding to know what was so good about it. When Stu praised the drawing, she revealed that it was hers all along, asking why he thought it was good when he thought it was Weber’s but crap now that she knows it’s hers. That only reinforces Stu’s stubborn resolve to shut her out, but what piques Ben’s interest about this is that he drawing apparently solved the problem of what to do with the air ducts that have him and the rest of the mall renovation team stumped. Stu doesn’t remember how she solved it and refuses to consult her, and Ben has to figure out how to reinvent her solution without bringing her aboard.

This opening barrage of overlapping, interrupting dialogue is delivered terrifically by Warren David Keith’s sour and weary Stu and Rod Gnapp’s confident but cagey Ben. They’re both open with their misogyny, especially Stu, but he says it’s not about that. It’s that Eliza refuses to play by the rules, to sit back and wait for work to trickle down to her. “I don’t mind working with her,” Stu says. “But she is a cunt. That I mind.” Ben badmouths her as much as Stu does, but when he realizes she could be useful he becomes the only one who really sees her talent, although even then he doesn’t lift a finger to help her.

When we meet Eliza she’s still fuming (“Motherfucking cocksucking cocksucker,” quoth she), and in fact that anger and frustration is her default mode for most of the play. There are times when she’s pleading for support or trying to give a professional presentation, but mostly she’s just pissed off, and rightfully so. You have to share Eliza’s frustration when she says, “They said it wasn’t like this anymore. Why is it still like this?!” When she comes full of sharp ideas for a project and Stu latches onto the first superficial detail he can think of to tear the whole thing down in the most condescending manner imaginable, and the others back him up with sycophantic relish, it’s infuriating.

Sarah Nealis does a credible job with what’s ultimately a one-note protagonist, and not a particularly likable one. You’re on her side by default because the others are such shits, but she’s also arrogant: she may well be smarter than everyone else, but she’s not going to get far telling people they’re stupid and then expecting them to help her out. While she’s unquestionably right about how dysfunctionally patriarchal the office culture is, her coworkers aren’t entirely wrong about her either.

James Wagner is amusingly aggravating as Weber, the dimbulb golden boy who’s taken seriously although his big ideas are just blather, and Pamela Gaye Walker is particularly funny as Janice, the eager-to-please, two-faced other woman in the office who tells everyone what they want to hear and struggles to keep up with what they’re saying.

Skip Mercier’s sleek set gives a good sense of the open space of the office, with a small glass wall opening into the corridor and a glass top table, both of which move around to suggest different rooms in the office. One particularly nice touch in Greco’s production is to have people passing by in the corridor every now & then during scenes, making it credible when characters talk about overhearing something their coworkers said. Costumer Alex Jaeger’s sharp office attire helps complete the illusion.

The trouble is, the play doesn’t go anywhere. What We’re Up Against was originally produced in 1992 as a short play published in Rebeck’s 2007 Smith and Kraus collection Complete Plays Volume III: Short Plays 1989-2005, and at the time it consisted solely of the conversation between Ben and Stu that opens the full-length play. What’s interesting is that even without knowing that on opening night, my impression at intermission and again when it was all over was that in an hour and 40 minutes the play never progresses past that first scene. That conversation tells us everything we need to know about the office culture, the characters, and the play. Everything that happens afterward is only elaborating upon that first scene, fleshing it out but not really progressing from it.

It’s fun to see the characters we only heard about in the first conversation and find that yeah, they’re pretty much what we’d pictured, and the strong cast has a lot to do with that. There are a couple of cute switcheroos along the way when it seems like maybe the shoe will be on the other foot, but then nothing really happens with them either. And maybe that’s the point–that nothing happens and nothing changes–and that’s no way to run an office, but it’s also not enough to support a play.

What We’re Up Against
Through March 6
Magic Theatre
Fort Mason Center
San Francisco, CA
www.magictheatre.org

Show #13 of 2011, attended February 9.

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