New Theater Collective
at Chicago Dramatists
The recent revelations about corporate malfeasance–and the New Theater Collective’s revival of Richard Strand’s 1989 satire of American business–got me thinking again about my days in corporate America. Over the years I’ve worked for several bloated businesses and for some smaller, more wiry start-ups desperate to become as arthritic and uncreative as the big boys. But I was never a good corporate soldier. Near the bottom of the hierarchy, I was expected to keep quiet and have no opinions. I hid my contempt badly. Cruel quips would fly out of my mouth (I once told the person in charge of a lame company newsletter that she should rename it the “Off Wacker”).
In 1984 I worked in some lofty executive suites, however, as the lone male secretary. There I saw plenty of incompetence and wasted effort, including the CEO’s much ballyhooed “task force on innovation,” made up entirely of the stodgiest, least creative executives he could find. I used to call it the “task force against innovation” to my boss, a talented man naturally excluded from the group, which usually made him laugh. Then one day, thanks to a little typo neither of us caught in the weekly notes, everyone from the president on down found out about my clever nickname. But even though I’d seen firsthand the arrogance and stupidity of some executives, I was surprised to read about Enron’s byzantine manipulations and WorldCom’s outright lies.
Perhaps part of the reason is that, for the past 20 years, business–especially big business–has been given a free ride by the press, especially the business press. CEOs have been treated as celebrities and businesses seen almost as philanthropic organizations, as beneficent job-creating enterprises. Massive layoffs were justified as a way to make companies leaner and meaner and raise stock prices.
And in the late 80s and 90s, theater was increasingly underwritten by corporate sponsors. Strand’s play was first produced at the Humana Festival, which is paid for by the HMO. And The Bug is definitely in the Dilbertian mold common at the time: bosses are dumb, Mondays are awful, the coffee sucks. The story is thin–a wormy low-level employee of the gigantic Jericho corporation, Dennis Post, fears he’s about to be transferred to the hinterlands and creates a tempest in a teapot when he reveals to headquarters that no one has seen the factory supervisor for the past three years. Most of the play is taken up with the attempts of middle managers to verify Dennis’s story, though Strand also offers a nod at an office romance and some very gentle jokes about hierarchies and gender politics.
Theater used to be tougher on business. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman offered a devastating attack on American capitalism, as did his All My Sons. Even Tennessee Williams got his digs in, complaining about tiresome working conditions in The Glass Menagerie. True, Strand’s work is a comedy, but it has virtually nothing to say about corporate life that wasn’t better said in the 1961 Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
It’s infuriating to sit through a satire as toothless as this one in the summer of 2002. Again and again you sense that Strand is pulling his punches. The name “Jericho” summons up images of Joshua and epic battles, but the story he tells is far from heroic–or even mock-heroic. The situations are only slightly stranger than real life, and his characters are tame, never seeming particularly committed to their lives, personal or corporate. Even when someone implausibly pulls a gun on another, it doesn’t seem more than a silly sitcomlike plot twist.
When the walls do metaphorically come tumbling down at the end, Strand plays the moment as a one-liner at the end of a long, flabby comedy sketch. Likewise the CEO of Jericho is simply an excuse for a quick, sugarcoated laugh. He’s just a disembodied voice ringing out from a corner office–a funny bit the first time it’s employed but never fully explored. Is the CEO meant to be God? Or is he, like Major Major in Catch-22, too timid to face his minions directly?
Probably out of naivete, the brand-new New Theater Collective has chosen a play that’s apparently topical but not really on point. Still, director Leslie Charipar clearly knows her way around a stage, and this inaugural production certainly looks nice. Set designer Martin Andrew has captured perfectly the sterility of most offices. And Charipar’s cast gets the most out of Strand’s thin script. Joe Sherman in particular makes a terrific antihero: thanks to him, the character of Dennis sometimes gives the impression of a third dimension.
Sadly, however, no cast or design team can be strong enough to make a play tougher or smarter than it is: Strand’s cartoon characters talk and talk but rarely feel, act, or say anything eloquent or insightful. This might have worked in the late 80s, when we were all content to close our eyes. But now it’s glaringly obvious that something is rotten in the state of business.