Center Theater

It seems that even in death George Pullman feared the men he exploited when he was alive. Like the tomb of a modern pharaoh, his ugly, pompous vault in Graceland Cemetery is encased in several layers of concrete meant to prevent irate workers from exploding the corpse of the sleeping-car mogul.

In her new play, Labor Relations, a work commissioned by Center Theater to open its fourth season, Nancy Beckett imagines how Pullman’s paranoia might have warped him while he was alive. She sees the tycoon as a latter-day Lear, a wounded father who, after treating his workers like children, was crushed when he received only filial ingratitude.

Where, he wonders in the play, did he go wrong? All he did was create a company town, itself called Pullman, out of a marsh eight miles south of Chicago. There he set out to save his workers the trouble of worrying about anything but working for him the rest of their lives–on whatever terms and for whatever wages he dictated. There wasn’t even the mockery of self-government found in South Africa. It was neo-feudalism at it s most blatant. (Trying to depict the human side of the robber baron, Beckett omits certain crucial facts about workers’ grievances: the vicious strike of 1894, for example, was the workers’ response when Pullman cut their wages after the Panic of 1893 but maintained or increased the price of housing, food, and utilities, all of which he controlled. Eventually Eugene Debs brought a nationwide railroad strike to protest Pullman’s medieval paternalism.)

Beckett actually makes Jane Addams espouse the Lear thesis about Pullman: the saintlike social worker, who functions as Pullman’s ideological opposite, presents the play as a lecture-demonstration conducted at Hull House. As Addams paints him, Pullman is Lear in his personal as well as his public life. His twin sons have become gambling wastrels somewhere in the west. His daughter Harriet (an unseen Cordelia) has deserted daddy, changed her name, and is now working at Hull House. Only the dutiful but devious daughter, Florence, remains. We see her immured with her father in the Hotel Florence; from this vantage point he watches the National Guard crush the “impudent” strikers (Dan Quayle would have loved their job). Florence passes the time pining for paternal affection and scheming to disinherit the apostate Harriet–much as Lear’s Edmund betrayed his brother Edgar.

Beckett not only intends to show the corruption of Pullman’s dream of enlightened management, she also wants to demonstrate labor’s self-betrayal, as its once mighty solidarity crumbles and the working family deteriorates into an “economic unit.” Into the Pullman-Addams-Lear story she interweaves an ugly modern story: two sisters and an unemployed brother fall apart as they face the 1974 recession. Ed is bitter, nasty, selfish, alcoholic, and sexist, a louse of a loser who treats his sisters much as Pullman did his workers. Ed makes his pregnant sister, Ann, trick her boyfriend into signing a contract promising to do the decent thing; it’s a legalistic ploy that inevitably backfires. Ed can’t abide the other sister, Kay, a bored and frustrated nurse’s aide who fully returns his loathing. In her first speech, she calls Ed and all men “assholes,” an epithet the play does little to oppose.

By the end, Labor Relations should have fused the twin failures of labor (Ed) and management (Pullman) by demonstrating how one generation’s failure of heart triggers another’s failure of nerve. But unfortunately Beckett has squandered our attention on bizarre, frustrating red herrings–like Florence’s twisted machinations and Ed’s bafflingly unlikely offer to adopt Ann’s baby. In some surreal scenes, Beckett shows the 1974 Ed agreeing to work for Pullman in 1894, and Ann/Cordelia struggling through the storm with Pullman/Lear, but these only confuse rather than crystallize the play’s scattershot arguments.

Labor Relations ends up feeling as abstract as its title, and too much like the lecture with which it began–an enervating, inconsistent lecture at that. Pullman may be wrong to think that the poor are only happy when they’re regulated, and this hypothetical Addams may be right that labor should give the broken plutocrat some credit for a dream gone sour, but Labor Relations only fritters away these legitimate points, drowning them in clutter.

Dan LaMorte’s mannered, aimless staging of this world premiere doesn’t help a bit. Like Pullman’s tomb, Beckett’s dialogue is encased in its own concrete, in a stilted, unspontaneous delivery. The performances are as unfocused as the writing, and as abstract as set designer John Murbach’s bleak gray props and panels. Hilary Hammond’s Addams is earnest but not in the least interesting. Marc Vann’s Pullman is more vacuous than tragic, a Victorian Rodney Dangerfield–he just can’t get no respect. Sheryl Nieman plays Florence as if she were auditioning for the role of the lonely, dependent daughter in Washington Square–but then, faced with this half-role, she had to find some way to pass the time.

RJ Coleman plays Ed as the ultimate bastard, a mistake since Ed could be as plaintive a loser as Pullman if we could just get past his unreconstructed rottenness. Here he’s such an SOB you just wish he’d put a sock in it. (I guess he appealed to a few people. On opening night, several yahoos in a back row went into hysterical conniptions whenever Ed called a sister a “bitch” or fired off a witticism like “What do you think, I drive with my finger up my ass?” Hey guys, just say no.)

Diane Tuscher snarls well enough as Ed’s man-hating sister, Kay, but where’s the challenge in that? Which leaves Erika Leigh to provide the play’s only decent work, as the almost-innocent Ann; her sad-as-hell “What about me?” really registers. But in a final scene, she too launches into lecture, one more reason why Labor Relations falls–it tries to substitute program notes for drama.