Griffin Theatre

I was tired. It was Friday night and I’d worked hard all week, and I didn’t have much energy left when I flopped into my seat at the Griffin Theatre to watch The Downside, by Richard Dresser.

Maybe that’s why this silly play was so enjoyable–I needed a mental vacation, and that’s precisely what The Downside provided. The characters are as simple as cartoons, and they’re locked in a situation that’s easy to grasp. (Too easy, perhaps–my companion guessed the outcome midway through the first act.) The action isn’t complex enough to invite slumber, and even if you’re tired, the laugh lines come often enough to keep you awake. The Downside is ideal theater for people who prefer TV.

The play takes place in the offices of Mark and Maxwell, a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey that is about to introduce a new tranquilizer called Maxolan 3000. The FDA has given it the OK, and the company president, who like God communicates as a disembodied voice (over the conference telephone), wants the drug on the market immediately.

This throws the staff into a panic, and the stress exposes the personality defects they would rather keep concealed. Jeff, for example, nicely played by Nelson Russo as a handsome, well-dressed corporate climber, turns out to be a snake. He’s in line for a major promotion, and his main competition is Ben (David Williams); but Ben has a gambling problem and a wife who is a bit too friendly for conservative corporate tastes. The other contender is Diane (Kimberly Muller), but she’s timid and passive. She didn’t even protest when her boyfriend, a corporate creativity trainer, decided to spend a year meditating in Tibet. “He figures with one solid year of meditation he can make it through about four levels, which translates into maybe another 40 grand a year when he comes home,” Diane explains.

One executive is going to be fired, and Jeff and Ben agree that it will be Carl (Kevin Farrell), a grinning, brainless jock who sums up his recent trip to Alaska in “three words– un-be-lievable!” Carl never gets upset, Jeff says, “because he never understands the situation.”

As they gear up for the Maxolan campaign, Jeff and Ben encounter two surprises. First, their supervisor, Alan (George Scanlan), begins to talk about the late-night visits he has been receiving from Richard Nixon. “The man will not shut up,” Alan complains. “He is a god-awful listener.”

Then Jeff is told to train a new employee named Stan, a short, obsequious man deftly portrayed as a wise fool by Rick Almada. Although totally unqualified, Stan is unflappable during his job interview. When Alan asks about the 12 jobs Stan has held since graduation, Stan replies, “It’s been interesting to see different parts of our country.” And when Alan tells him that by taking the job he will be “hurling [himself] naked into a pit of poisonous snakes,” Stan replies cheerfully, “I welcome the challenge.”

A third complication involving Maxolan introduces an ethical issue, but nothing serious enough to induce thought. The Downside remains steadfastly shallow. Fortunately the cast members, under the direction of Neil Wilson, find the humor in the script without straining for laughs. Although Scanlan stumbled on his lines occasionally, he brings a wonderfully deadpan approach to Alan, the beleaguered executive kept awake by Nixon. Kymberly Harris cleverly adds a touch of intelligence to Roxanne, the lusty receptionist who is sexually involved with two men–sometimes at the same time. And John S. Baker comes through with a hilariously manic performance as Gary, the man hired to produce a film about Maxolan. “I’ve done the art thing,” Gary explains with intensity. “Now I’m into making money.”

The Downside embraces the worst features of TV sitcoms. The comedy is heavy-handed, and the situations are implausible and they’re resolved with pat solutions. The script displays only a token concern for contemporary issues, which is worse than no concern at all.

What saves the Griffin Theatre production is the simple, straightforward approach taken by the director. Wilson hasn’t tried to impose meaning on the material, and he hasn’t cluttered the comedy with a lot of extra stage business. He merely lets the actors say their lines, and lets the laughs emerge naturally. The Downside is a silly, superficial play guaranteed not to place a great burden on the higher faculties, but as the Nielsen ratings show us so unfailingly, that’s precisely what a lot of people want.