Posted by: strugglesome | June 20, 2011

Office Space: People’s Light and Theater Company’s Hatchetman

If comedy were a party, then farce would be that guy. You know, the guy who pre-gamed with Jagermeister and insists upon keg stands and starts all the chanting and generally causes a lot of problems, but you can’t really kick him out, because he really is a decent person and besides, he’s already fallen asleep on your couch. So you let farce come to your parties, because without farce irony would have nothing at which to sneer, and because farce makes sarcasm look so much better in comparison. But it does often get treated as the red-headed stepchild of the bunch, we study farce as a form, we appreciate it in theory, but in practice it can be a little difficult to embrace. Which is a shame, because really well executed farce can be absolutely wonderful. But bad farce can be more uncomfortable then watching Boogie Nights with a parent or sibling. And People’s Light and Theater Company’s production of Hatchetman, directed by Steve Umberger, truly vacillates between those two extremes, shifting from excellent to awkward and back again, the nicely-crafted production completely at the mercy of David Wiltse’s woefully uneven material. Because try as you might, you can’t fight the foundations of the work, and at the end of the day that purse is clearly made of sow’s ear, not from silk, though not from lack of trying.

Once you take one look at James Pyne’s hilariously unsubtle set-design, you know exactly what kind of play this is going to be, and that is a wannabe sitcom with an elbow placed squarely in the audience’s gut at all times. Set in the painfully zany offices of Putt’s Magazine, a golph rag written by a colorful cast of non-golphing characters, Pyne’s design sets up the themes of the piece before a single word is spoken, on one side there are the girls, neat, efficient and tastefully pink, and on the other side there are the boys, messy, disorganized and underlined with a shade of hospital-wall green. Four wooden doors create endless possibilities for entrances and exits, letting the piece feel like an airport lobby, and Dennis Parichy’s controlling but helpful lighting design lets us know where in this busy space we need to be looking. Fred Story’s all pervasive “corporate sounds” scream workplace at us, and so all in all, assuming you’ve ever seen any television show produced in the last 50 years, you can get a pretty good idea that this is an office somewhere in the United Space.

But beware, this is no ordinary 9 to 5, as newbie Ben Johnson (Andrew Kane) soon learns. His fellow coworkers aren’t just cubicle buddies, they are clinically insane sex crazed wisecracking scallywags, and they don’t actually seem to get a lot of work done at all. Take, for example, the office babe, Temple (Mary McCool). Temple says she wants to rise above her status as a lowly staff writer to become a powerful executive, but what she really does all day is prance around in outfits that look like they are straight off the Wet Seal Professional Escort line (costumes by Marla Jurglanis), tempting every man in sight and ordering around her half-blind pathologically shy (at least around the male of the species) office mate Jane (Julia Stroup). However she does find the energy to trade pale imitations of His Girl Friday style zingers with her adversary and love interest Carter (Pete Prior), a manic maniac who hides booze in his office (my kind of guy) and freely admits that “I’m a writer, I’m basically unemployable”. And of course they all make time to deflect Otis (Tom Teti) the last remnant of the magazine’s founding family, and hide from Sam (Mary Elizabeth Scallen) their ball busting (on many levels) boss. When you think of it, really, who has time to run a magazine when they have so much going on? And it’s no wonder that the magazine itself is up for sale, causing widespread panic at the thought of a ruthless Hatchetman cutting through the chaff in this wheat field, because if this was real life and not a play none of these people would have jobs.  As it is, they probably make twice your salary. Ah, the magic of theater.

And so we have the scene set, ripe for corporate intrigue and cutthroat competition, not to mention an all night sex romp in a Narnia-size supply closet. But if you are looking for something more then a frivolous farce that is more cartoon then real characters, well, look else where, because this play is nothing more then what it is, a silly faintly saccharine piece of fluff that tops every easy joke off with a hit on the head. Literally. These people keep walking into things, one hopes a doctor is standing by. And the actors are game enough for the continued humiliation of this style of farce, you really have to leave all dignity at the door when you star in a piece that moves at 100 revolutions per minute and refuses to live in the ordinary, preferring only the extremes. And therein lies one of the issues of this piece, it starts so heightened that there is no where for it to go, it then becomes a series of events that are so removed from normal reactions that the audience never really has time to invest in the characters or enter into the world of the piece. Add that to the fact that the style of humor is, dare I say it, old-fashioned (sort of an homage to Noises Off and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) but the subject matter is quite topical and significant (corporate America versus small family run businesses, employment issues, the viability of print media)and the combination of the two feels somewhat hollow, missing an opportunity for satire in the face of all the farce.

And while all of the actors are talented, Prior’s hysterical and hyper Carter and Scallen’s sultry and bold Sam being stellar standouts (though Scallen is so much more sexy then scary, I don’t know what the men of this office are thinking, running away like that!) with nice turns by Kane and Stroup as the awkwardly cute office dorks, the style of the work is so presentational that it exists solely at the surface level, with a conspicuous lack of depth. As a general rule, I tend to laugh louder and longer when I don’t get the sense that the actors are waiting for me to do so. But to be fair, that was not the case for most of the audience, who found the predictable but solidly delivered jokes wildly entertaining, chuckling at each nostalgic cracking of the wise. Me, I most enjoyed a moment when Kane lost his pen on the other side of the invisible wall that “separates” the two sides of the office, and in a charmingly Chaplin move, just hopped over the thing to get it back, and then smiled at the audience, apologizing for the mistake. It’s the difference between a sly wink and a strong nudge, and it’s just a shame this particular play prefers to play rough, because it leaves the production, and the audience, a little bruised in it’s wake.

But then again, I take my comedy very seriously. And serious is the one thing farce has no business being. After all, there is something to be said for foolishly funny farce, and at it’s best, this work can make you laugh without trying, and couldn’t we all use a laugh? You can pick up tickets for Hatchetmen here.

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