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Theatre in Review: What We're Up Against (Women's Project Theater)

Krysta Rodriguez. Photo: Joan Marcus

Theresa Rebeck has chosen to set her indictment of office politics -- sexual and otherwise -- in an architecture firm. It's a curious choice because, even with the playwright's acute ear for hypocrisy, What We're Up Against suffers from nagging little structural problems that occasionally prove undermining. Her central argument is definitely on the level, but the play that houses it could stand a firmer foundation.

A renovation plan is the catalyst for the political maneuvering and discreet backstabbing that make up the play's main action. The firm, in which Rebeck's characters spend more time hatching plots than designing buildings, has been assigned to create an extension to a shopping mall. It should be an easy job, but this is the fourth such renovation, and, having been worked over by many hands, it comes with chaotic arrangement of ducts that must be streamlined if the overall project is going to work. Eliza, one of the newest members of the staff, has solved the problem, but nobody will listen to her -- partly because she is young and mostly because she is a woman.

Eliza is a promising young talent who finds herself relegated to an office that barely qualifies as a broom closet, where, she adds, "I have been here for five months and they are paying me to sit back in that shitty fucking office and do nothing." To get some attention, respect, and maybe even an assignment, she puts a colleague's name on her design for the mall and presents it to Stu, her supervisor, who goes over it in loving detail, explaining to her why it is the sort of superior work to which she can only aspire. When she reveals her authorship of the document, he flies into a rage, telling another colleague that Eliza is "a lying, deceitful, dishonest little manipulator." He adds, "I don't mind working with her. But she is a bitch. That I mind."

Rebeck's plays sometimes suffer from a certain lack of attention to the details of whatever world she is writing about, and so it is here. She presents the sexism pervading the office in hair-raising detail: In an exchange between Stu and Ben, another architect, the latter says, "What do we need another woman for? Janice is one, we have one. I don't know what we need to stockpile women for." But it's highly unlikely that Eliza would spend her days sitting in her office, on salary, staring at the four walls; in a place like this, the new hires would be given plenty of grunt work -- in this case, drafting -- to keep them busy. The play's premise -- and Eliza's dissatisfaction -- would make more sense if, say, a year after being hired, she was cross-eyed with boredom from drawing up other people's plans. Then again, Eliza was apparently hired at the behest of David, the unseen head of the firm -- and, the script implies, something of a star in the profession. Everyone assumes that Eliza is sleeping with David, which she denies. And when she considers taking her beef up with David, Janice, her only female colleague, warns her, "Do you want to be labeled a whiner? If you go to David, you will be."

Rebeck leaves the Eliza-David relationship deliberately ambiguous, which causes one to wonder about their status. You can probably take Eliza at her word about the lack of any office romance. But then, how does she know David? If, as she implies, she is something of a protégé -- "David thinks I'm awesome," she says, "That's why I got hired, because it's his company and he loves me." -- would she really be ignored and patronized as she is here? Or is Eliza lying about meeting for a private dinner with David? A crucial piece of information is left missing, making it hard to assess the situation. Again, the premise might have been stronger if she were a much-lauded graduate hired from one of the top architecture programs -- and left hanging.

What We're Up Against has its moments, including two passages, set at design presentations, that amusingly lampoon the overblown theories that architects often employ to justify their work. And, to her credit, Rebeck doesn't pin a halo on Eliza, who proves to be as practiced an infighter as the rest, launching a power play that helps her advance in the firm, leaving plenty of scorched earth in her wake. This cues a scathing takedown from Janice, who, memorably, tells her, "I've been here six years; you come in and in five months you've got everyone completely pissed off and I'm supposed to stand up for you because we both have breasts and a vagina. Look, why don't we just go shopping together? That'll solve everything."

The play tries to occupy a middle ground between satire and drama that really means it, never really paying full tribute to either approach. Stu and Weber, the most Machiavellian of this crew, are broadly drawn cartoons, while Ben, despite the speech quoted above, and Janice are written with more nuance. (Janice is the most interesting character in the play.) The dialogue could use more zing at times -- if the characters complain about "the fucking ducts" once, they do it ten times. And it's not at all clear why a piece that runs just a tad over ninety minutes needs an intermission. The effect is to make a choppily constructed play seem even choppier.

Some of these problems can be laid at director Adrienne Campbell-Holt's feet; she never pulls her cast together into a unified style. There are some telling moments, as when Eliza drags a stool across the room, making just enough noise to remind everyone of her presence, or when Eliza and Ben awkwardly consider the possibility of going out on a date. The overall performance, however, is uneven. As Eliza, Krysta Rodriguez is all bluster and fury; there's probably no other way to play her, but she eventually becomes a trial with her high-decibel complaining. Skylar Astin has some sly fun with Weber's sneaky ways, especially in a scene during which he intimates to Stu that he considers him a father figure, unlike Ben, who has written him off as a drunk. (On this point, Ben is speaking nothing but the truth; so much scotch is consumed onstage it's a wonder that the firm doesn't have its own regular AA meeting.) Marg Helgenberger is first-rate as Janice, whose go-along-to-get-along manner masks a deep distaste for Eliza's naked ambition. Jim Parrack's Ben is much more nuanced than he initially appears. If Damian Young's Stu is a caricature, he's a blood-curdling one, and, in his final scene, genuinely pitiable.

The action unfolds on a set, by Narelle Sissons, that neatly stacks one office on top of another; this must have complicated the life of Grant Yeager, the lighting designer, no end, but his work is smoothly professional throughout. Tilly Grimes' costumes seem right on the mark, and M. L. Dogg's sound design makes good use of a variety of pop selections, in many styles, for the segues between scenes.

There's a well of justified anger at the core of What We're Up Against -- a title that carries a sting, since the play was written in 1992 but still seems thoroughly of the moment. Nevertheless, it suffers from a certain fuzziness of presentation that keeps it from landing a knockout punch. Still, Rebeck's scalding view of office life will be, for many, all too accurate. Maybe, in another twenty-five years or so, her play will be greeted as a period piece. One can always hope. -- David Barbour

(14 November 2017)

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