5. Review of CORE VALUES
After reading Charles Isherwood’s New York Times pan of this comedy by Steven Levenson, now playing at Ars Nova (one of NY’s several out-of-the-way Off Broadway venues), I told my wife she might want to think again about going with me. She immediately bowed out, and none of my usual theatre companions were interested either, so I went alone, only to discover that the play was much better than expected, and that a lot of people had missed a worthwhile theatre experience. The play, excellently directed by Carolyn Cantor on a small stage that bisects the tiny theatre, with about 25 people seated in what would normally be the upstage area, facing an audience of perhaps 70 on the other side.
Lauren Helpern’s simple set replicates the basic elements of a conference room, with one wall bearing a big white note board, and the other carrying a door for entrances and exits. A sizable table and typical office chairs occupy the center, and bright fluorescent lighting, designed by Traci Klainer Polimeni, illuminates the space. We are in a travel agency—its boss wants to call it a “leisure expert” firm—at an annual weekend retreat. The economic downturn has forced the company to use its own conference room rather than the Hampton Inn of recent years, which Richard (Reed Birney), the CEO, keeps recalling as if it were the Hilton. The two regular workers, Todd (Paul Thureen), a nerdy blonde guy with a beard who does the tech work and is anxious for a raise and a move into sales, and Nancy (Susan Kelechi Watson), an attractive but totally blasé black woman, would rather be anywhere else. The new hire, Eliot (Erin Wilhelmi), a ditzy young blonde who was hired only a day earlier as a replacement for an incompetent employee who quit to make a TV pilot, is as eager as a puppy to join the team and do well, but she’s also frightened to death because she has no idea of what her responsibilities are or how, without any training, she’s expected to be a travel agent. One other employee is absent, having gone on vacation to Florida with his family. The desperately smiling Richard does his earnest if uncertain best to reassure her, and to make his other employees want to be there and make the most out of the experience, even though they’re not being paid for their time; Richard calls it a retreat, ergo, it’s not work.
If, like me, you’ve ever spent a week in a conference room with the same people, meeting from morning to midnight and beyond and watching much of your time being needlessly frittered away, you’ll have a good idea of why I found myself caring about the comically frustrating plight of these hapless characters.
The play is structured as a series of episodes, some very brief, that move us through the weekend’s highlights, so that within an hour and half we get the essence of the complete experience and feel as ready to go home at the end as the characters do. The time is spent largely with Richard running a series of typical training exercises designed to build confidence, trust, and sales ability during cold calls. Some of the latter are very funny, as the actors improvise making and receiving calls that hope to induce the customer to buy a travel package. A trust exercise where someone falls backward into the arms of someone else, hoping he’s there, also sparks a big laugh. As with TV’s “THE OFFICE,” you have to buy the incompetence of most of the characters; in real life, they wouldn’t last a week in a true business environment. But the sincerity and dry, understated comic performances manage to draw you in just enough so you are willing to abandon disbelief and accept the world of the play.
Best of all is the ever-reliable Reed Birney, whose Richard puts on a cheery air while he’s actually suffering inside from loneliness after the dissolution of his marriage and the alienation of his children. Gradually, we see his hidden pain emerge from beneath his often ridiculous earnestness, and we see a man desperately working at making the retreat successful because his time with these people is about the only real human contact he can muster. When his staff fails to meet his expectations, even deciding to be elsewhere than at a post-retreat, Sunday night restaurant dinner he has invited them to on his dime, his subdued disappointment is poignant indeed. CORE VALUES may seem a little silly, but the dilemmas it presents will strike a note of recognition and sympathy in many theatergoers, while also giving them lots to laugh about.