Downsize This

The financial shenanigans that brought the economy to the brink of collapse are tailor-made for satire, and Bay Area theater companies were quick to rise to the task, from the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s Too Big to Fail a couple years ago to No Nude Men’s Hermes this spring. Now Berkeley’s Central Works—which does nothing but collaboratively created new plays—gets into the act with Patricia Milton’s comedy Reduction in Force, directed by company codirector (and usual playwright) Gary Graves.

Jan Zvaifler and John Patrick Moore in Reduction in Force. Photo by Jay Yamada.

The other company codirector, Jan Zvaifler, plays Anita Green, an anxious, earnest executive secretary at Icarus Financial Services (yes, the names are very much on the nose). In an opening monologue she explains that she’s appalled by the corruption around her but can’t risk her job because she has kids to support and mortgages to pay. Her boss, Gabby Deeds (whom Anita usually calls Miss Deeds—which would be a cute pun if it didn’t just come out sounding like “Misty”) seems to have slept her way up the corporate ladder and is always chewing out her various boy toys around the office on her Bluetooth. Kendra Lee Oberhauser is amusingly sociopathic as Gabby, cheerfully cruel and voraciously venal.

Enter Mitch Brinkman, an entry-level employee who’s just there to deliver something from another executive, but Gabby commandeers him to work under her, leering openly. No sooner is Mitch welcomed aboard than they’re told they have to downsize, and Gabby has to lay one of her two employees off, and she makes a big show of deciding which one it will be.

Mitch is an eager and shameless ass-kisser, and some of the funniest bits have to do with how up-front he is about his it  “I never sit,” he says. “Sitting would mean I’m not giving my all.” John Patrick Moore makes him weaselly and likeable at the same time, just because he’s so forthright about his opportunism. He jumps on any chance to ingratiate himself like a fidgety predator waiting for a gopher to pop out of a hole. But will he prove to be enemy or ally?

The satire is far from subtle: Mitch’s last job was at “Reamin’ Brothers,” and Gabby invests in tropical storm devastation. It’s hard to root for Anita quite as much as we seem to be supposed to, because although she’s loyal, long-suffering and virtuous, she also comes off as a passive-aggressive scold, and through her the play becomes overly preachy at the end, even (or maybe especially) if you agree with what it’s saying. While the twists and turns in the second act are entertaining, there may be too many of them, leading one to think several times that surely it must be nearly finished when in fact it still has a ways to go. But there are plenty of riotous moments in this comedy, so even if it doesn’t need to be quite two hours, it’s still a pretty good investment of time.

Reduction in Force
Through August 28
Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Show #71 of 2011, attended August 4.

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