As playwright and actor Victor L. Cahn puts it in his new show, the office can be a friendly place, but it can also be a ruthless place. As it is in business, so it is in life.
Cahn’s Getting The Business is promoted as a farce noir about sexual politics and office intrigue. However, I’m not sure either term really fits. It is instead an escalating game of cat and mouse, complicated by the fact that at any given moment it’s hard to say who is which one.
When we first meet Patricia and Bert — Susan Louise O’Connor and Cahn, respectively — it’s like we’re witnessing something of a cute-off between the two. He, the very essence of smiling gentility, and she, a ringer for a bubbly, young Dianne Weist, all bewildered smiles and peppy go-getter initiative. They’re so sweet and giggly, so “aw, shucks” polite in their first face-to-face, with him asking very sensible questions and she giving rather insensible answers, that if we didn’t know there was another 70 minutes of play left, I would think her career was over before it started.
Her elusive answers and inventory of vague excuses began to try my patience fairly early on, and I wasn’t ready to buy the story quite so early in the show. Sure she’s plucky and pleasant and has more than an ounce of assertive spunk, but that’s not enough. Just as it seems to take some patience on Bert’s part as an interviewer, it took some patience as a member of the audience to suspend my disbelief enough to accept the ridiculousness of the situation. The initial impression is that she’s a bit of an airhead and he’s a bit of a soft touch. But initial impressions can be misleading.
When the awkward flirtation begins in the second scene, it all happens very quickly, so much so that I’d say it feels rushed, even though we know it’s coming. Patricia seems to be handling herself well in the office, getting by with her coworkers just like she did in her interview, through simple manipulation and a touch of conniving. She’s so effective that Bert makes a joke about promoting her that quickly leads to a reveal that he may have actually been outmaneuvered and unintentionally given her a raise. He’s clearly peeved by the turn of events, so Patricia does what we eventually learn she does best; she uses her feminine charms (read: her miniskirts and stiletto pumps) to assuage Bert’s beleaguered ego.
I have to give the actors credit where due: When the play takes a turn for the aggressively sexual, I felt genuine discomfort at witnessing young, pretty Patricia’s encouragement and Bert’s old-fashioned groping and slavering advances. It comes on quickly, and considering how little character development there has been by this point, the whole thing is a bit jarring. It was not subtle and it was not playful, though the Patricia character does try to make it seem so. And whereas both Patricia and Bert were at first fairly likeable at the start of the show, once the sexual tension enters the room, they quickly descend into the realm of despicable. Avuncular becomes sinister, assertive becomes aggressive, and the audience is suddenly left with no one to root for.
It’s a bold move to put yourself out there as a villain, and Cahn, having written the part for himself to play, does nothing to make his character likeable. But that’s a strength the play does have; as the tension escalates, the acting rises to the occasion. O’Connor does an admiral job of taking her character from meek to malicious, looking steadily sharper and steel-willed with each passing scene.
Despite the effective levels of cringe-inducing unease the cast produced, as a whole the play fell just short for me. The topic has been more subtly addressed recently in shows like David Mamet’s Race, which for all its confusion and back and forth over right and wrong, still allowed the audience to maintain some kind of emotional connection and allegiance to at least one character. It may be unfair to compare the two, but that is the show that stood out. Then again, comparison to Mamet could be a compliment as well.
All in all, it’s a very good effort and a thought-provoking 80 minutes. Cahn and O’Connor keep the pace quick, delivering their lines with precision and at a good clip, but the plot timing could use a little work. I daresay the addition of an extra cast member or two would not hurt it either; there’s a lot of taking their word for it when we know we can’t rely on anything either one says. The whole package wraps up in a neat little bundle, though it’s clear at the end that some important lessons have gone unlearned.
Photos by Jon Kandel
Getting the Business
Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre
Performances through September 1, 2012