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Working It Out 

A spiraling, syncopated riff on the relationship between people and their jobs

Wednesday, Feb 16 2005
If it weren't for the fact that The Typographer's Dream is advertised as a play, you'd be forgiven for thinking you had mistakenly stumbled on a high school career fair upon taking a seat in the airy Thick House auditorium. At the beginning of Encore Theatre Company's production of Adam Bock's comedy, we are introduced to three characters: a typographer, a geographer, and a stenographer, who proceed, with varying degrees of stiffness and eloquence, to enthuse about their jobs. The stage is empty but for a long, conference-style table and three office chairs; a technician fusses with a pitcher of water and some glasses in a corner; the house lights remain lit. Even the floor has the feel of a high school gymnasium, with its pattern of crisscrossing multicolored lines.

In a country where the corporation is king and the workweek seems to be getting longer, employment has taken on the significance of organized religion. People identify with their jobs more than ever, and while in the past we've worked to live, for many years now the reverse has been true. "I'm not my job," swears the typographer in Bock's play, only to admit, when all's said and done, that she is. It's not for nothing that we don't find out the characters' actual names -- or that they know each other socially -- until quite some time into the show. Sitting with their infomercial smiles behind placards inscribed with their respective job titles, these people, at least on the face of it, are their careers.

Reportedly inspired in part by the 2 1/2 years Bock spent working at a graphic and Web design firm, The Typographer's Dream is a spiraling, syncopated riff on the relationship between people and their jobs. Director Anne Kauffman and actors Aimée Guillot, Jamie Jones, and Michael Shipley gleefully demonstrate how the three characters match their chosen careers, occasionally making them resemble -- through the unselfconscious eagerness with which they talk about their work -- the wacky types who populate the films of Christopher Guest.

For example, stenographer Dave (performed with brilliant comic timing by Shipley) is as proud of his role as the courtroom's "official witness" as he is of his typing skills ("120 words a minute junior in high school"). A faithful chronicler of other people's passions and misdemeanors, Dave comes across as a nonperson, a neutral entity dressed from top to toe in self-effacing gray. Lamenting that geography is no longer taught as a subject in its own right in schools, instead folded under the innocuous umbrella of "social science," geographer Annalise (vivaciously personified by Jones) makes up for this slight with a schoolteacherish manner and appearance. Energetic and erect in her crisp crimson suit, she even dashes out of the room to her car on a couple of occasions to fetch props (an atlas, a mounted diagram of geographic phenomena) to illustrate her points. Lastly, we come to the typographer, Margaret (the pretty, moody Guillot), who manifests her obsession with fonts by doodling absent-mindedly on the desk.

A whole branch of ham psychology exists around the business of matching "personality types" with appropriate careers, from tools like the Keirsey Temperament Sorter and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that are supposed to help people discover their type by slotting them into categories under headings like "performer," "protector," and "inventor," to shelfloads of books with exceedingly convoluted titles, such as the best-selling Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career Type for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type and I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was: How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It. But Bock does more than demonstrate the influence of personality upon career choice; he also shows the reverse: how our career choices influence us.

Not long into the play, its squeaky-clean job-expo machine starts to malfunction. For all the geographer's eloquence, her enthusiastic trivia about the nature of tectonic plates and the way that England is always colored pink and Poland yellow on maps quickly boils down to one indisputable fact: that geography, like everything else, is a business. Similarly, when the stenographer starts to talk about his job, he gets wound up almost immediately in semantics, undecided as to whether "court reporter" might be a more glamorous job title than "stenographer." And as for the poor typographer, she doesn't seem capable of stringing a complete sentence together. In the first 10 minutes of the play, her contribution amounts to little more than "um."

It soon becomes clear that the professional lives these people have chosen to lead don't fit them as snugly as we've been given to expect. Typography is all about detail, we learn, yet for all the careful placement of her words, this typographer is a mess. She chews gum, sends a glass of water cascading to the floor, and, unlike her colleagues in their ties and suits, is better equipped in her jeans and a pale blue puffer jacket for a backcountry hike than a professional meeting. Geography, according to Annalise, is in essence the study of boundaries. But with her garrulous monologues and overbearing personality, our geographer doesn't seem to have a problem with spilling into other people's space. Meanwhile, the stenographer's punctilious attitude toward a faithful representation of courtroom facts is undermined when Annalise and Margaret call Dave a pathological liar. By the end of the play, the characters not only develop a better understanding of the less-than-perfect relationship between themselves and their careers, but also come to realize how much their jobs have changed them.

Transforming, in just over an hour, from stiff formality to loose intimacy, Bock's divine comedy ends up being a celebration of downtime, of those secret parts of our lives untouched by working life. The play's most revelatory moments take place not under bright lights at the conference table, but in dreamlike flashbacks. Similarly, its rhythmic elasticity and mesmerizing humor derive to a greater degree from moments of silence -- when the characters do nothing more productive than fiddle with their car keys, stare into space, or doodle on the table -- than from all the worthy career speeches put together.

Upon closer inspection, the floor of James Faerron's set ceases to look like that of a high school gym. It's really a detailed architectural blueprint of a house. Not the building details, mind you -- only its barest outline. Similarly, a job is just a job. It's not a life.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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