Off-key Pitch

It’s always baffling to me when someone ascribes a poor review of a show to some kind of preexisting personal grudge on the part of the critic. On the one hand, I understand it: When you don’t want to consider that criticism of your work or the work of someone you love might be valid, you look for any reason you can possibly think of to discount it. The critic just doesn’t understand, the critic must have been having a bad day, or the critic must have it in for you. Either of the first two might be valid, although not nearly as often as people want to think, but the third is just nonsense. And it’s by far the one I hear most when someone writes in to complain about a review. In fact, someone recently commented on my review of Chance saying that if I described a freestanding nonfolding chair as a folding chair, it must be because I was lying to try to scare people off from the show.

I can’t speak for all critics everywhere, and thank goodness I don’t have to, but I never, ever go to a show with the intention of trashing it. It just doesn’t happen. I go to a lot of theater—sometimes 120 shows a year—and yet there are a lot more shows that look interesting that I can’t possibly get to, because I’m just one man and I have to spend some time at home with my lovely wife and our lovely dog. So I have to choose carefully what I go to see, and I’m not going to pick something that I have no reasonable expectation that I’ll enjoy. Life’s too short for bad theater. Obviously, despite my best efforts to pick stuff that looks good, I’m going to see some clunkers from time to time. It’s an occupational hazard. But I always want them to be good, and if I give a show a poor review it’s always because I had hopes for it and am disappointed that it wasn’t better. Why would I go somewhere with the intention of having a bad time? It doesn’t even make sense.

Nobody would want the above to be an intro to a review of their show, because after all that you know it’s not going to be a terribly positive one. But I thought of this anew when I went to see Central Works’s Pitch Perfect, because from time to time a play is just going to rub you the wrong way. I was in a perfectly good mood when I went to see the show, it’s a company whose work I follow and find interesting, and the actors are all people I like. But within 10 minutes after the play began, I was wishing I hadn’t come.

Tim Redmond, Brian Trybom and Deb Fink in Pitch Perfect. Photo by Jim Norrena.

Tim Redmond, Brian Trybom and Deb Fink in Pitch Perfect. Photo by Jim Norrena.

The second play to come out of the company’s new development program, the Central Works Writers Workshop, Pitch Perfect is a satire about the advertising industry. The playwright, Martin Edwards, used to be creative director for the West Coast office of an advertising agency, and the play is based loosely on his experiences.

The place is a mess when you get there. Papers are scattered all over the floor, along with used Chinese takeout containers, crushed energy drink cans, and a lot of used paper cups. What the theater doesn’t clean up for company anymore? But no, this is just how Roger works. He’s the bad boy of advertising. His methods are unorthodox. He’s a loose cannon. “Roger doesn’t believe in chairs,” we’re told in the initial burst of exposition. “They restrict his creativity.”  If you don’t detest this Roger guy sight unseen after all the dialogue about what a rebel he is, you must have the patience of a saint.

As it turns out, Roger isn’t an eccentric genius. He’s just a slovenly fuckup who’s driven the West Coast office of his advertising agency into the ground and lost its clients, and his boss has come out to Los Angeles from New York to fire him. A fretful but capable Maggie Mason tries to cover up for him as his doting secretary, office manager, and lover, the starry-eyed young Englishwoman Caitlin, but Brian Trybom is having none of it as gruff boss Bob Goldman. He wants Roger out and replaced by Maggie, Roger’s former creative partner and, as we learn later, his ex-wife, who had been driven out of the firm a while ago. (That’s right, there are no women in the office, or in the play, that Roger hasn’t had sex with.)

But when Roger finally crawls out from behind the sofa fort where he’s been sleeping, sans pants, we find out he has an ace up his T-shirt sleeve. Through old fraternity connections he’s managed to weasel into a closed pitch for Pear Computers, which is preparing to unveil its new production, the Bartlett. “Tablets are for Moses,” Roger sniffs. “This is a paradigm pitch. Or should I say Pear-adigm?” No, you shouldn’t. You really shouldn’t.

Tim Redmond’s Roger is a disheveled, overgrown fratboy who can always be counted upon to do something rash, thoughtless and childish. At one point he comes in from the bathroom with a red cape and a toilet brush, wielding it like a magic wand. Deb Fink’s hard-shelled Maggie exudes contempt from the moment she walks into the office, and understandably so. “You used to make me believe in love,” Bob tells them before it’s actually been made clear that they’re exes as well as ex-coworkers. “Now you’re just a couple of assholes.”

It’s a play about abrasive, unlikeable people, accentuated by the goofy, exaggerated style of the performances in director Gary Graves’s staging. But what I found most irritating about it was what I referred to in my notes as “half-clever dialogue in love with its own half-cleverness.” Now, that’s a charge that really could be made against any play that’s obviously intended to be witty but whose wit really isn’t working for you, because it’s almost inevitably going to come off as kind of smirky and insufferable. Still, that was how it felt hearing Roger talk about his new contractors, Jesus and Maria: “Why not maximize the blasphemetrics?” Someone else might find this hilarious stuff, but even with all the goodwill in the world, I just couldn’t see anything in it to like.

Pitch Perfect
Through August 18
Central Works
Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Show #74 of 2013, attended July 18.

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