“Men Exposing Themselves”
|Damian Young, Jim Parrack (above); Krysta Rodriguez. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
There are three men and two women working at an architectural firm in What We’re Up Against, Theresa Rebeck’s (Seminar, TV’s “Smash”) stingingly smart, expertly performed dramedy about sexual politics in the workplace. The women are attractive but none of the men touches them inappropriately, calls them “honey” or “sweetheart,” or uses his position to serve his gonadal appetites.
|Damian Young, Marg Helgenberger, Jim Parrack, Skylar Astin, Krysta Rodriguez, Jim Parrack. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
On the other hand, these guys never stop exposing themselves, not in a Louis C.K. or Harvey Weinstein way, but in their chauvinistic attitudes toward what they see as threats to their male hegemony. Forget about the play’s being set in 1992 (when it was written) or that it’s not about physical exploitation; the topic couldn’t be more pertinent. Rebeck herself experienced something like what happens to her heroine more recently after being fired from “Smash” following her first season as its writer.
|Damian Young, Jim Parrack. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Rebeck’s play, which premiered as late as 2012, on the West Coast, and had an Off-Off showing last year, is being produced by the Women’s Project Theatre at the Upper West Side’s McGinn/Cazale Theatre. Its first-rate presentation, expertly directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, uses a two-level set designed by Narelle Sissons, with the office of Stu (Damian Young, so good as Lisa Kudrow’s husband on TV’s “The Comeback”), the chief architect, sitting directly over the office of an architect named Janice (Marg Helgenberger, TV’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”); the action moves back and forth (or up and down) between these spaces.
Janice has been with the firm for half a dozen years but is stuck in basically the same subordinate position. Despite any ambitions she harbors, she realizes she’s a token to demonstrate gender diversity on the staff and plays along with the rampant sexism of her misogynistic superiors in order not to make waves.
|Damian Young, Skylar Astin. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
But waves are in the offing in the presence of Eliza (Krysta Rodriguez, First Date). This super smart, ambitious, young architect has been with the firm for five months but has been placed in a “broom closet” of an office; for all her ability, she’s intensely frustrated about constantly being overlooked in the assignment of projects. This is true despite her close relationship with the unseen David, the firm’s owner; inspired by the conviction she would not otherwise have been hired, a rumor has it that she’s sleeping with him. If that were the case, though, one wonders why he hasn’t supported her in her struggle for recognition.
|Jim Parrack, Krysta Rodriguez. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
At the same time, another even more recent hire, Weber (Skylar Astin, Pitch Perfect), a full-of-himself windbag, has been given a big mall project Eliza is more qualified to handle. He resents Eliza’s talents and is ready and willing to sabotage her. Acting as the chief intermediary in much of this is the somewhat ambiguous Ben (Jim Parrack, TV’s “True Blood”), friendly and highly competent on the one hand but, on the other, complicit in shielding the firm’s glass ceiling from distaff side ability.
|Marg Helgenberger, Krysa Rodriguez. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
The multifarious ways in which office gender politics are played out are revealed when the only one capable of solving a serious problem with the mall project’s ductwork turns out to be Eliza, something no one wants to admit and everyone will do anything to deny. Eliza cleverly contrives to play their game against her antagonists, even at the expense of her welfare, by devising a trick that catches them in its devious web.
|Damian Young, Marg Helgenberger. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Rebeck cleverly exploits the convolutions Eliza’s blueprint solution creates to satirize the gender issues in a scotch-drinking, foul-mouthed, male-dominated company. These men, justifying themselves as if it’s they who are the victims, are sensitive about the legal issues involved if their female co-workers think they’re being treated unfairly; privately, though, they’ll do everything they can to ignore, subvert, or demean them, their choice insult being “bitch.” Within this construct, the playwright also manages to poke fun at the pretensions of the architecture business, at least those involved in its smaller manifestations.
|Skylar Astin, Marg Helgenberger, Jim Parrack. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Of course, you have to buy the one-sided depiction of the men, especially Stu and Weber, to appreciate Rebeck’s argument within the framework of a two-act, hour and 45-minute play. Janice’s presence offers a female character in counterpoint to Eliza, needing to ingratiate herself as a “team player” while nonetheless feeling guilty about betraying her gender. An interesting scene between the women comes at the end as they strive to come to a rapprochement only to establish more of a standoff than a resolution.
|Skylar Astin, Marg Helgenberger. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
With nineties pop tunes (sound design: M.L. Dogg) setting the tone, spot-on lighting by Grant Yeager (who uses neon to line the frames of the set’s two rooms), and convincing period costumes (the women’s are still quite fashionable) by Tilly Grimes, What We’re Up Against is both physically and aurally appealing.
|Damian Young, Skylar Astin, Krysta Rodriguez. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Its actors are all well cast, although the eye-catching Rodriguez is not your conventional image of an architect. Playing against type, she establishes herself as the sharpest pencil on the drafting table, employing guile, charm, and defiance—including downing Weber’s very expensive scotch without being asked, as if it were a slightly bitter Pepsi.
|Marg Helgenberger, Krysta Rodriguez. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
For a primer on what women are often up against, What We’re Up Against is worth a look.
WP Theatre/McGinn/Cazale Theater
2162 Broadway (at 76th St.), NYC
Through November 26