Inaction in Action

San Francisco’s fledgling 3Girls Theatre Company is jumping into the Bay Area theater community with both feet, spending all of March (Women’s History Month, that is) in residence at Thick House with two fully staged productions of plays by staff members AJ Baker and Lee Brady and staged readings of works in progress by several other local women writers.

Helen Shumaker, Catherine Castellanos, and Lol Levy in The Right Thing. Photo by Andy Berry.

The world premiere of The Right Thing isn’t quite the best introduction for the company, unfortunately. Although the production boasts an impressive cast, the script by managing director AJ Baker is on the flimsy side, with lots of generic legal-drama rhetoric, and artistic director Suze M. Allen’s staging seemed conspicuously underrehearsed on opening night; the pacing was slack and the energy flat, and a few actors got tangled in their lines.

Krista Kamman Lowe has crafted a fairly elaborate set of three rooms in a tri-level semicircle, all with matching black and tan furniture. A video screen reads “DRAMS—Office of Dispute Resolution and Mediation Service” but mostly cycles through different slides for different scenes, such as chess pieces or a Bay Bridge tower.

The play takes place over a very long day’s mediation, negotiating the severance package of a CEO who was fired in the midst of a minor scandal that has the firm being sued for sexual harassment. She also has a (not unrelated) drinking problem and a habit of sleeping with coworkers. The play opens with Catherine Castellanos as Dr. Zell (short for Azalea) Gardner, the defrocked CEO in question, blearily sniffling, sighing and grunting as she adjusts her makeup and generally arranges herself for a long day after what looks to have been a long night too, if she ever has any short ones.

Her lawyer, Manny Diamond, is supposed to be the best there is, in the mode of countless other fictional lawyers who are supposed to be the best there is. (Zell also describes herself as “the best CEO this company ever had,” so there’s plenty of hyperbole to go around.) The opposing counsel says, “I don’t have Mr. Diamond’s oratorical talents,” but the trouble with this particular silver-tongued devil is that Louis Parnell’s delivery is fast-paced but mushmouthed as Manny, so it’s hard to understand what he says, let alone be impressed by it. Parnell has a good physical presence as Manny, but without the elocution it doesn’t do him much good.

John Flanagan is a pretty simple, what-you-see-is-what-you-get guy as Chris McKnight, the firm’s counsel, who does what he’s told but considers Zell a friend. Local stage veteran Helen Shumaker doesn’t make much of an impression in the thankless role of Judge Mansfield, the likeable but largely inert mediator.  In vaguely punky attire, Karina Wolfe plays the confused, overdramatic teen fairly well as Sam, Zell’s erstwhile house guest.

Lol Levy exudes a compelling aura of supercilious contempt as acting CEO Dr. David Heller, who’s orchestrated or helped along Zell’s downfall as best he could. Much of the fun of the production comes of watching the push and pull when he and Castellanos’s Zell are in a room together, even if nothing much comes of it, nor indeed of any negotiation or other conversation in the play.

There’s a lot of talking around things with vague expository dialogue, so it’s often hard to know if the playwright is attempting to build suspense or simply not expressing things clearly, a problem exacerbated onstage by indistinct diction. As an example, when people are talking about some sexual harassment claim in which Zell brought Sam from the mailroom into her house, and her oldest friend’s teenage daughter living with her there, it sounds as if she got drunk and brought some guy from the mailroom home, where he hit on her teenage houseguest. But the friend’s daughter and Sam from the mailroom are the same person, and that’s probably not supposed to be any great dramatic revelation. This problem of clarity makes it difficult to guess what may or may not be a spoiler, because while of course you’re supposed to wonder what’s going to happen, you can’t know to what extent you’re supposed to wonder what happened in the first place.

What little suspense there is in the production is all wrapped up in Castellanos’s performance as Zell. Her corporate duds a bit too unbuttoned to be seemly, she’s fretful and perpetually distracted, as if her mind’s elsewhere entirely. She’s a study in avoidance. Sure, she’s hung over or maintaining a low-level drunkenness with the flask she keeps in her purse, but she’s also clearly in her own world in a way that’s intriguing enough to make you want to know what’s in her head.

That wondering may make you latch on to all sorts of details that turn out to have no real relevance to what’s going on, such as when Zell misplaces a favorite brooch. Is this a gambit of some kind? No, it’s just a conversation piece, something else to talk about in a day of talking and talking and getting nothing accomplished.

There are a couple of dramatic faceoffs in the show that are engaging as long as they last because you wonder what effect they might have on the proceedings, but over and over, nothing changes anything. A few missing pieces of what happened fall into place, but the play doesn’t go anywhere because ultimately it has no dramatic arc to move along.

The Right Thing
Through April 1
Thick House
1695 18th St.
San Francisco, CA
www.3girlstheatre.org

Show #27 of 2012, attended March 9.

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