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Theatre in Review: Herding Cats (OHenry Productions/Stellar)

Jassa Ahluwalia, Sophie Melville. Photo: Danny Kaan.

As a good portion of the world waits to return to work, playwright Lucinda Coxon wants to remind you that life on the job can be a soul-destroying business -- even if you don't mortally embarrass yourself with inappropriate behavior. The latter the fate of Justine, who has an ill-defined position ("project coordinator," a term that can mean so many things) in a company that does something or other. She spends her days cleaning up the messes made by Nigel, her inept, overprivileged boss. Her nights are spent downing epic quantities of liquor -- which, she insists, are needed to steady her nerves for the next day's foray into the office jungle. (She swears that she is cutting back, usually as she reaches for another bottle of beer.) Getting loaded at the office holiday party, she flirts with Nigel, announcing that she is "the pantychrist," a comment that sounds like an old Monty Python joke. Soon they're making provocative comments about taking a business trip together. But perhaps because she can't help pushing things too far, Justine gets much too familiar with Nigel, leading to a drunken confrontation, the consequences of which cannot be good for her long-term prospects.

All of this is rattled off, at the pace of a teletype machine, by Sophie Melville; armed with energy and sparkle to spare, she makes Justine into a vivacious chatterbox, at least until you notice that she is speeding off a psychological cliff. Her interlocutor and flatmate, the boyish, genial Michael, paces her run-on monologues with interjections that allow her to catch her breath. At first, Michael appears to be a figure known on the soaps as a "coffee cup," a minor character who exists to receive exposition. But he has a much more bizarre and troubling occupation: A phone sex specialist, he pretends to be Juliet, a preadolescent girl, taking part in daddy-discipline fantasies with his leading client, the middle-aged Saddo (Greg Germann). Coxon cuts off these scenes before they get too explicit, but, nevertheless, they are effectively geared to raise viewer's hackles. The gifted Jassa Ahluwalia clearly maps the polar-opposite personalities as Michael and Juliet; taking on the latter role, he establishes a creepy intimacy with Germann, who infuses Saddo with an unsettling combination of desire and self-disgust.

So: two on-the-job relationships consisting of commerce inflected with sex or vice versa. Justine's account of life in office hell crackles with her magpie wit and Michael and Saddo engage in some intriguing games of psychological chess. This is especially true when Michael lures an unwilling Saddo back into their fantasy world, after the latter has tried to cut ties. Suddenly, Michael, playing the role of victim, seizes the upper hand; his refusal to accept payment from Saddo is a calculated gambit that dares to push their relationship beyond the transactional. It's the moment when a play that sometimes seems plotted on a chart briefly, and grippingly, takes on the unruly quality of life.

Even its best, Herding Cats is lively, sometimes lacerating, but ultimately glib -- a dramatic setup in search of a full-fledged play. For one thing, Coxon holds back too much crucial information. Why is Michael so invested in his perverted career? Why does he never leave the flat? (The script hints at a traumatic incident without explaining it.) And what connection are we meant to draw from these unhappy employment situations? A comment on the discontents of late-stage capitalism? A study of obsession? A portrait of sad cases looking for intimacy in all the wrong places? Herding Cats could be all of these things. Then again, it could be none of them. Adding to one's bemusement, an eleventh-hour revelation about Saddo's appalling sexual kinks leaves the faintly nasty feeling that Coxon is exploiting child abuse for too-easy shocks.

Herding Cats is easy to take, largely because all three actors are adept, especially given their unusual working circumstances: Ahluwalia and Melville are in London's Soho Theatre, and Germann's performance is delivered live from Los Angeles via video link; it's another proof that the pandemic is mother to a million workarounds. The overall smoothness of the performance is, I am sure, a tribute to director Anthony Banks. The design elements -- lighting by Howard Hudson, costumes by Susan Kulkarni, video by Andrzej Goulding, scenery by Grace Smart, and sound by Ben and Max Ringham -- are solid; indeed, they remind one of the pleasures of live theatre, the days of which (one hopes) are drawing near.

Herding Cats has been assembled by skilled professionals, but the result is oddly inconclusive. Perhaps because the characters collaborate so willingly in their degradation, the play is marked by a certain determinism. Justine and Michael are on the road to ruin, and we know the itinerary better than they do; as a result, it's a little bit hard to care. You can find it at herdingcatsplay.com/. -- David Barbour

(25 May 2021)

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