Pamela Gaye Walker (left) is Janice and Sarah Nealis is Eliza in Theresa Rebeck’s incendiary workplace comedy What We’re Up Against at the Magic Theatre. Below: Rod Gnapp (left) is Ben and James Wagner is Weber. Photos by Jennifer Reiley
Playwright Theresa Rebeck, a master of barbed contemporary dialogue, conducts an interesting experiment in the Magic Theatre’s world premiere of What We’re Up Against.
Her Petri dish is a big-city architectural firm – all glass and metal in Skip Mercier’s sleek, mostly black, white and gray set. Her chosen bacteria: the architects, all of whom turn out to be antiseptic assholes.
To stir the chemical reactions, Rebeck introduces elements commonly found in the workplace: power plays, raging sexism, vaulting ambition, moronic behavior and that ever-powerful agent, greed.
The architects at this particular firm are mostly isolated from the outside world. We hear about some client interaction, but the focus of their activity is internal. There’s not talk of spouses, significant others, children, parents, pets, groceries or dry cleaning. This nearly two-hour, two-act drama (with some hearty if stinging comedy) has a sharp focus and that is unpleasant behavior from unpleasant people.
“This is no one’s finest or most shining hour,” one architect says toward the end, and that’s so true. But it’s fascinating to watch people being ruthless in everyday, creepily corporate ways.
From the first scene, between Warren David Keith as Stu, a boozy senior architect and Rod Gnapp as Ben, a less senior but vitally important architect, we get hammered by Rebeck’s sharp dialogue.
You can hear Mamet-like rhythms in the chatter – as when speakers interrupt themselves mid-sentence – but Rebeck’s dialogue is more engaging, less slick. Stu, who is enormously threatened by women in the workplace, talks a lot about his balls (especially about them being cut off) and about systems and rules. Both men say things like “What I’m saying” or “I’m telling you” or “Listen!” They desperately want to be heard (and acknowledged or, better yet, praised) but say the same thing over and over.
There’s discord at the firm because a hotshot young architect, Eliza (Sarah Nealis) is going against the corporate grain and not keeping her mouth shut. It’s not that she doesn’t have enough to do –she doesn’t have anything to do. With too much time on her hands and her abundant talent going untapped, she stirs up trouble.
The other woman in the firm, Janice (Pamela Gaye Walker), makes a feeble attempt to comfort the distraught younger woman, but she makes abundantly clear that just because they’re both women, they are not allies.
The one sort of superfluous character here is Weber (James Wagner), a golden boy who’s been at the firm a shorter time than Eliza. He talks a good game, like when discussing strip malls: “The human heart meets the void in these places and shops anyway.” And he can keep up with the scotch-swilling other boys, but he’s a dolt. “History is a fiction,” he says. “But it’s a sustainable fiction.” He serves his purpose in the plot, then he disappears.
Director Loretta Greco, the Magic’s artistic director, keeps the pace swift and the action intensely focused. She gets a superb performance from Nealis as the complex Eliza, who, you get the impression, would behave less horrifically if she were given the respect she deserves.
The amazing Gnapp goes on a verbal rampage in Act 2 about something central to the plot – air ducts in a mall remodel – and almost chokes himself on his words before observing, “It’s a relentless metaphor for why we can’t breathe.”
It’s interesting that the sexual element of the male-female dynamic in this workplace is barely addressed – perhaps that’s because Rebeck’s experiment is too focused. Sex is messy and real, and these people, in their slickly casual but expertly fitted clothing (by Alex Jaeger) are removed from the reality outside Rebeck’s microscopic lens.
This laboratory yields compelling results, but the experiment seems unfinished. The play ends, but the bad cells, you can feel, just keep multiplying.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Theresa Rebeck’s What We’re Up Against continues through March 6 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $44-$60. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.