The program for the Long Wharf Theatre’s current world premiere production of Heidi Schreck’s “The Consultant” takes great pains to cite that the play investigates the possibility of a person’s ability to reach out and make a difference in another troubled person’s life, in the context of the modern, dehumanizing and often cutthroat office setting.
Those “pains” are well-founded because as one watches director Kip Fagan’s production, you are constantly trying to figure out what the play is ultimately supposed to be about and just where the entire work is going. For a good portion of its intermissionless 90 or so minutes, Schreck’s work seems to be rolling out any number of disparate themes, generally assembled around those dark day of February and March 2009 when the nation’s economy was falling apart and layoffs were occurring with incredible frequency.
This is an entirely appropriate subject for theater, and in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that during that period five years ago I found myself laid off quite unceremoniously after nearly 30 years of employment. Of course, I would probably not be in the position of being able to now write about and review theatrical productions if that had not happened, but at the time it was a very difficult, frustrating experience.
Schreck sets her work in the front lobby for a New York-based pharmaceutical marketing firm, very realistically and evocatively designed by Andrew Boyce. The setting is both sleek and cold, and features toward the rear of the stage a large, glassed in conference room with table and chairs, entered only through a security door. Once inside, the characters’ voices can only be heard through a disjarring amplification system designed for the audience’s benefit. Characters outside of the room in the lobby cannot hear what is being said.
The plot is set in motion by the arrival of a catalyst, I mean a consultant, who in reality is a graduate student at NYU, who is brought on board apparently by the members of a sales team and not the senior management to help a highly creative inhouse designer develop his presentation skills. The designer, Jun Suk, played by Nelson Lee, is naturally quiet and shy, unable to look clients directly in the eye, but has more recently become extremely distracted by a messy divorce and extremely contentious custody negotiations that Jun Suk fears will keep him from his son. Lee plays the taciturn, troubled character quite believably, and charts his initial resistance and rudeness to the consultant effectively, while hinting at the improvement in his presentation skills, which we never get to see at their most successful.
The consultant turns out to be genuinely earnest about her assignment, even though she is under the mistaken impression that she has been sent over by NYU’s resource services department to teach English as a second language to Jun Suk. After their embarrassing and humiliating first meeting, the consultant Amelia returns, determined to help Jun Suk at any cost, even though her work consists of primarily mouthing bromides from one of those best-selling books claiming to help executives to improve their presentations. Claire Barron very ably takes Amelia from her initial tentativeness to a growing confidence fired by a growing concern for her student, realizing that his future with the agency depends upon his ability to dazzle the client.
The team leader Mark is played by Darren Goldstein as polished, confident and overly charming, yet exhibiting the adolescent male competitive-style behavior that marks so many young men in business these days, as they try to impress the women in the office and lord their supposedly superior knowledge and success over their male peers. Goldstein offers more than just a one-note performance, however. He (and playwright Schreck) allow his vulnerabilities to show through, whether it be through cross-continent phone calls to his needy mother in California, in his concerns about his colleague’s ability to regain his presentation skills and in the loneliness that drives his false bravado as he attempts to ask out the office’s receptionist on a date.
Cassie Beck’s beleaguered receptionist Tania turns out to be one of the moral centers of the play, as she strives to provide the necessary encouragement to the staff while juggling a myriad of phone calls and requests for assistance. Her Tania turns out to be more of a genuine, caring person than initially perceived, as she strives to reassure her colleagues regarding any sense of impending layoffs and determine whether or not she should succumb to Mark’s insistent pleas. Beck does a terrific job in this part, reminding us of many secretaries we know in real life and on television. (She particularly reminded me of the character of Donna on the USA Network series, “Suits.”)
An impending sense of anxiety hangs over the three employees of the firm, who live in constant fear of liklosing clients and, worse, under a fear of losing their jobs, aware of what is happening in the world outside. But throughout the play, Schreck diverts focus by exploring Amelia’s attempts to bond with the staff while revealing her limitations as a consultant, inserting a potential pregnancy subplot, and introducing us in one scene to a former employee of the firm, an uber-ambitious account executive named Barbara who left to start her own firm and returns spouting classic management development lines that reveal her single-minded purpose. As played by Lynne McCullough, Barbara is a familiar business type, who lives and breathes an overconfidence that arms her to effectively maneuver through the challenges of starting up a new business in a shattered economy.
That the consultant Amelia, out of naivety or a genuine lack of understanding of how contemporary cutthroat business truly operates, makes a significant error in judgment that has deadly repercussions to the entire firm, undermines that character’s purpose as demonstrating the importance of bonding and caring for your fellow workers. That the error is never caught or even self-acknowledged by the character damages in this reviewer’s opinion any positive actions on Amelia’s part in the unexpected denouement of the play and ultimately doesn’t support all the discussion in the evening’s program it about the so-called theme of the play.
And, in spite of the other losses incurred over the course of the play, the denouement demonstrates the bond between two characters, while there are other characters who could use their colleagues’ support and comfort as well. What the final scene does show, however, thanks to Beck’s mesmerizing work as Tania, is her character’s resilience, as she assumes the role of anchor while having undergone a jarring event with just as many negative consequences as the event that highlights the consultant’s bond with another character.
Fagan’s direction establishes a pace that is indeed appropriate for an office setting, although the short, but frequent needs for characters to find their security badges to proceed past the receptionist or the time taken to buzz characters from the lobby into the conference room can be off-putting. Daniel Kluger’s sound design is especially impressive as he allows us to listen into the conversations within the glass-enclosed conference room, while Matt Frey’s lighting contributes to the blackouts between scenes and carefully highlights various locations and conversations on the set. Jessica Pabst dresses the cast in outfits that suit their characters and their positions, with tasteful but alluring dresses and skirts for Tania, graduate school togs for Amelia, a power outfit for the hard-charging Barbara, a slightly tight but attractive suit for Mark, and downcast business casual for the struggling Jun Suk.
It seems, however, that Schreck, who is an accomplished and enjoyable actress in addition to being a successful playwright, has wanted to cover a number of issues regarding contemporary office culture, while guiding her play to ultimately explore and concentrate on a specific issue. While indeed offices in our business-focused culture have tended to supplant families and friends, that point only really hits home at the end. The tragic reality, as demonstrated by some other plot developments in Schreck’s work, is that these relationships are ultimately temporary, that they will more often than not be superseded by the company’s need for efficiency and profit. The resources that are human will easily be sacrificed in the long term, and the moments that feel like family will only be fleeting, no matter how much good people like Tania and Amelia respond otherwise.
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