Victory Gardens

Given the dominance of corporations in America’s political and economic life, it’s surprising that more plays poking fun at them aren’t produced. In the 20 or so years following World War II, the years when Big Business established its hegemony, there were plenty of plays and movies (The Apartment, The Solid Gold Cadillac, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) pointing out the foibles of the Organization Men and their hierarchies.

I doubt the topic was exhausted in the 60s. More likely, few satirized big business in the 80s because corporate America was something of a sacred cow–what nonprofit theater would dare hurt its chances for corporate sponsorship?

But with the sputtering economy and accompanying cutbacks and layoffs, free enterprise no longer seems so free, and high-powered executives seem less like warriors preparing for battle and more like kleptomaniacs. And now that big business is on the ropes, people feel free to take a few jabs.

Richard Strand’s The Death of Zukasky, currently playing at Victory Gardens, is a mildly satiric comedy concerning the sudden unexpected death of Theodore Zukasky, sales director for a large unnamed corporation, and the undeclared office war that breaks out between Anne Desmond and Zukasky’s successor, an annoying, incompetent, avaricious dweeb named Barry Mills. The play takes occasional swipes at subtle corporate sexism–it’s clear that Desmond does not get Zukasky’s job because she’s a woman. It also takes swipes at the various superstitions that run rampant in corporations–no one, for example, dares make coffee for fear of losing status. Strand captures well the climate of fear that pervades many offices. Desmond and Mills are so afraid of offending Zukasky that when they find him apparently asleep in his office, it takes them a good five minutes to discover that he’s dead.

But it’s hard not to feel a little impatient with a playwright who selects only the easiest and most obvious targets to lampoon–petty politics and long-winded bosses–while shrinking from more damning flaws: the deadening routine, the undemocratic power structure, the hopelessly materialistic worldview. This is hardly an original vision of corporate America.

Still, The Death of Zukasky is well crafted. Every element in the story relates to the overall structure. Even the early yucks Strand gets with an argument over whether anyone will make coffee reveal important details: Mills is a sexist, Mills and Desmond don’t have a secretary, and the corporation is so fat and self-satisfied that the coddled sales force has time to argue about who’s going to make coffee. And though you can see nearly every twist coming, Strand has such a deft comic hand that it’s easy to forgive his predictability. Even the exceptionally well-worn “character on the ledge of a high building” bit he adds to the climax works surprisingly well.

It helps that director Curt Columbus resists the temptation to go for the jokes. And that his actors play their comic characters straight. This works especially well for Joe D. Lauck, who gives a marvelous performance as the blowhard Henry Marlino, the archetypical perfectly coiffed, empty-headed Big Guy Upstairs who’s more interested in telling stories than in understanding what’s happening in his office. Jim Leaming’s Barry Mills is much subtler than one would expect given a character whose role is to be annoying and infantile; for brief seconds I even felt sorry for the guy.

Less satisfying is David Cromer’s portrayal of the office weasel, A.C. Tattums. His edgy, fast-talking performance tips us off way too early in the play that Tattums is hardly the quiet, trustworthy new guy he seems to be. And though Betsy Freytag’s portrait of the increasingly exasperated Anne Desmond is frequently funny, it begins to seem repetitious by the middle of the second act, as if she’s already run through her repertoire of exasperated responses.

Overall The Death of Zukasky is highly entertaining. Though it has less bite to it than The Solid Gold Cadillac and none of its characters are as blandly evil as Fred MacMurray in The Apartment, it’s refreshing to see someone at least try to tackle American business.