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"What We're Up Against" and "Collapse": Unlikely Comedies 

Wednesday, Feb 23 2011

History may be a fiction, but it's a sustainable fiction." Nobody talks like that in corporate America — they're all too busy figuring out how to include words like "leverage" and "scalability" in their PowerPoint slides. Even at so-called "creative" firms, business-speak isn't self-consciously poetic so much as aggressively banal. "Sustainable fiction" is the kind of thing that only an academic would say.

But that's how everybody talks in Theresa Rebeck's tone-deaf, unobservant comedy What We're Up Against, now making its world premiere at Magic Theatre. The play wants to be a latter-day version of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, with a little bit of Oleanna thrown in. It doesn't even come close, in part because Rebeck lacks both Mamet's obscene eloquence and his knack for devilish provocation. But the larger issue is that the playwright doesn't appear to have stepped into an American workplace since about 1975.

Broadly directed by Magic's artistic director, Loretta Greco, What We're Up Against introduces us to an alternate corporate universe where misogyny is so pervasive that none of the men attempt to hide their contempt for women. Does sexism still play a major role in the average American office? Of course it does. But like workplace racism and homophobia, it's been pushed below the surface by regulatory and social pressures, manifesting itself in more calculated, underhanded, and occasionally inadvertent ways than Rebeck manages to dramatize here.

Lazy politics aside, this comedy's biggest failing is that it isn't funny. It takes place in a boutique architecture firm where Eliza (Sarah Nealis) is the overzealous new hire. She's obviously smarter and more talented than most of the idiots who pass for her colleagues, but she isn't diplomatic — she's too insistent on her own superiority without proving herself first. When a few of her co-workers struggle with the problem of incorporating air ducts into the renovation of a shopping mall, she offers unsolicited help, setting off a succession of backstabbings and double-crossings. The firm's manager (David Keith) can't help playing favorites, giving prime opportunities to the smarmy golden boy (a particularly unsubtle James Wagner) while keeping an incompetent token female (Pamela Gaye Walker) on staff to bolster the firm's diversity. Only one colleague, an embittered veteran named Ben (Rod Gnapp), seems to understand what's at stake in ignoring Eliza. And curiously, it's Ben, not Eliza, who ends up getting the show's only memorable speech.

As a one-act play, all of this might have been fine — in fact, the play began as a stand-alone eight-minute scene. But as a full-length piece, it's awfully flat and repetitive. Ben repeats the word "ducts" an unbelievable number of times, as if the word itself were somehow funny. And the rest of the dialogue doesn't get many laughs because it bears so little resemblance to the way people actually think and talk.

A few weeks back, I saw Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park at A.C.T., which found a huge amount of comedy in its characters' inability to suppress their unacknowledged racism. That felt both psychologically acute and true to the moment. What We're Up Against feels like Rebeck took a 40-year-old social-issues drama and added profanity and a few references to cellphones. It's an inadvertent period piece. "This has been no one's smartest or most shining hour," Ben admits near the play's conclusion. We'll call that one of the show's few moments of keen self-awareness.

Smart, shining hours are likewise in short supply in Allison Moore's comedy, Collapse, now making its world premiere at Aurora. But at least the play itself is relevant and often hilarious. Inspired by the 2007 collapse of Minneapolis's I-35W bridge, the play introduces us to Hannah (Carrie Paff) and David (Gabriel Marin), a married couple grappling with the aftermath of that tragedy while the nation at large undergoes a financial meltdown. Meanwhile, Hannah's sister, Susan (Amy Resnick), blows into town from the West Coast, freshly jobless and looking for a place to crash for an indefinite period. (She's the sort of Californian who has a cat named Camille Paglia and who likes to say, without apparent irony, that "the path will be illuminated.") Somehow all of this leads to a late-night drug-dealing rendezvous and a visit to Sex Addicts Anonymous.

Moore manages to find ridiculous humor in even the bleakest situations, and she does it the hard way — not by resorting to punchlines, but by slowly ratcheting up the comic tension over the course of a scene. Much of the credit here goes to director Jessica Heidt, who keeps the action moving at a brisk clip over the course of 90 fully stocked minutes. Melpomene Katakalos contributes a sharp and imposing set, with a giant iron bridge looming over Hannah and David's home. And the four-member cast is just right, especially Resnick, who has made something of a specialty out of playing obnoxious people at theaters throughout the Bay Area.

Moore's script falters only in its conclusion, when she feels the need to spell out her themes for any audience members who couldn't keep up. "Things collapse," David observes. "Bridges, marriages, companies." Yeah, we got that. With a little more restraint in the play's final minutes, Collapse would be as solid as it is unlikely — a very funny reminder that for all our building and striving and credit default swapping, the ground could give way at any minute.

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Chris Jensen

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