Theater Oobleck

at Curious Theatre Branch

To say that we Americans live in a “service economy” has become something of a bitter joke. People complain about spending hours waiting in long lines just to talk to someone who doesn’t know how to help them and resents their asking in the first place. Yet those outside the service sector generally view such jobs with disdain or, at best, indifference. How can one expect service with a smile from people reduced to mindless drones?

Theater Oobleck’s new late-night offering, Service Sector, eloquently and hilariously illustrates this point by turning reality on its head. Instead of a world where home deliveries are a rarity, this play offers a world in which any home service you can imagine, from dog walkers to Latin teachers to coffee stewards, is available with a single phone call. And it’s service with an obsequious smile too.

The man who receives all these services is Mr. Bonkowski (Dave Boo-Khaloom), a well-to-do River Forest home owner who simply wants to enjoy a nice cup of coffee in his comfortable kitchen. Unfortunately, all of the workers he’s hired show up on the same morning, trying to take care of his every need, from routing out his backed-up sewer to locating his daughter’s missing contact lens. These workers are so well trained at accommodating the customer that they barrel forward with their duties, grins plastered on their faces, unaware that they’re slowly turning Mr. Bonkowski’s carefully ordered life into chaos.

Service Sector, written by Boo-Khaloom and Theater Oobleck, is a nearly perfect plot machine. Each new arrival heightens Mr. Bonkowski’s anxiety until it seems he’ll never be left in peace. And since he’s ordered all these services himself, he becomes the perfect victim of his own middle-class overindulgence.

All the service workers are played by two actors, David Isaacson and Cheryl Anderson. Every time they appear as new characters, which seems to be about every 30 seconds, they adopt entirely new personae and accents, each more wacko than the last. Yet each actor sustains a singular sensibility throughout these characterizations. The trappings may vary wildly, but the style in which these characters are brought to life remains constant.

This approach paradoxically puts the actor’s sensibility front and center despite all the masks he or she hides behind. It’s a perfect solution to the potential pitfalls of multiple casting: the play never becomes a self-indulgent showcase for a pair of talented mimics. Instead, keeping the actor as present as the character creates a giddy sense of conspiracy. The actors seem to wink at the audience, as if to say, “Watch how I’ll drive Mr. Bonkowski crazy this time.” This conspiratorial feel is essential to the play’s central dramatic concern: the plight of service workers.

Isaacson and Anderson could not more skillfully execute the dozen or so roles they each play. Both bring great subtlety and nuance to the various stages and types of servitude; as a result Service Sector has a rich, varied texture. And Boo-Khaloom makes a charming victim, maintaining his suburban normalcy for as long as possible. He understands that Mr. Bonkowski must be void of personality, a kind of blank comic everyman, to be a proper foil for the exaggerated characters around him. In essence Boo-Khaloom does his best to throw all the focus on the other actors–and when was the last time you saw a playwright perform so generously in his own play?

The production sags a bit during the final 15 minutes, when Mr. Bonkowski carries on a long argument with the microwave maintenance woman. She accuses him of treating workers like insects, never so much as asking “How are you today?” He responds that the disparity of wealth in this country–by which he benefits, of course–creates much-needed jobs: since he can afford to buy a microwave oven, she can have a job inspecting it. The ideas are clever and true, but they’ve been so convincingly and slyly dramatized up to this point that the explication seems unnecessary.

A second, more intriguing theme is nascent in the text. Mr. Bonkowski not only needs service, he needs to create a personal world that comes up to his preconceptions of it. For example, Bonkowski wants his home to look like it belongs in River Forest, so he has a contract with Decorative Ducks, Incorporated, who place ducks in his pond, rotating them every few months. To ensure that the image doesn’t change, the ducks’ wings have been clipped.

Bonkowski already lives in River Forest, so putting mutilated ducks in his pond only adds authenticity by way of artifice. Service Sector never quite focuses on this quintessentially American notion–that the fake is somehow more real than the real–but it’s an important secondary theme, giving this rather light comedy a firmer foundation.