It Works. Where’s The Payoff?

T. Charles Erickson Photo“It’s not bad, it’s not evil, but it is sick.” That pithy comment on the state of American business—specifically regarding a fictional small New York advertising firm in the reeling-economy realities of 2009—is one of many quotable lines from Heidi Schreck’s mostly breezy, mostly comedic new play The Consultant.

The comment might also apply to parts of The Consultant itself. But so might another one: “I make my own schedule. I make my own life. Does that sound like something that would interest you?”

The play, receiving its world premiere through Feb. 9 at Long Wharf Stage II, toys with audiences, stringing us happily along with the compelling tale of a preoccupied, socially awkward mid-career ad designer named Jun Suk who is encouraged to enlist a young freelance “consultant” named Amelia. She is supposed to help him nail an all-important presentation to a much-needed client.

T. Charles Erickson PhotoSo far so commonplace. But Schreck is working on a higher level here, attempting to humanize the sort of characters which many modern American playwrights usually paint as scoundrels.

There’s the short-tempered office secretary, the horndog ad exec, the talented-yet-cryptic artist type who’s hopeless at selling himself, the self-assured businesswoman who’s gained success since her escape from the firm and returns to rub her former colleagues’ faces in it, and the relentlessly perky naïve young college student.

The playwright works wonders in undercutting these stereotypes. An accomplished actress herself, Schreck writes with the actors’ needs in mind. These are full-bodied, fun, eclectically expressive characters. They veer from silly sitcom gags to paranoiac workplace woes to inner emotional turmoil. Jun Suk (played by Nelson Lee, who remarkably finds the evenness and balance in such a manic role) and Amelia (Clare Barron, a bundle of bright-eyed energy) are the ostensible leading figures, since they propel what there is of a plot. But Schreck treats all her office denizens equally, providing intriguing crises or recoveries or surprises for each of them.

She also gives them traits that openly challenge the sitcom sensibility she has set up in The Consultant’s earliest scenes. One of the characters, we learn mid-play, has committed adultery. Another is a self-important jerk whose behavior borders on sexual harassment. Several are alcoholics. They all swear, and get unattractively fed up with each other. When we first meet Jun Suk, he’s sporting a black eye that’s too realistically bloody to be amusing.

The cast is helped immeasurably by the hyperefficient direction of Kip Fagan. There are many inspired sight gags that emanate from the office environment, like the numerous ways in which the workers swipe their ID cards to get into their unseen offices, or Amelia’s giddy temptation, when suddenly summoned to sub for the tart—tongued Tania behind the reception desk, to swivel about wildly in the wheeled chair.

Another behind-the-scenes talent raising The Consultant to a higher plateau is set designer Andrew Boyce. He has placed the two main playing areas, the office waiting room and a large conference room, right next to each other, so there’s no need for constant set changes. It affects the tone as well. The conference room is placed behind the waiting room corridor, with a real glass partition between them. This requires the consultancy scenes between Amelia and Jun Suk to take place at a distance and be heard through microphones and speakers, giving these scenes a different sense of intimacy and distance than we may be used to.

Other scenes are more directly staged, simply well written and acted. Cassie Beck takes the often one-note role of the tough, jaded secretary Tania and, with the help of a lifechanging event which Schreck has found room for in the script, becomes The Consultant’s most sensitive and assertive character, stealing whole scenes from Amelia and Jun Suk. Lynne McCollough has a walk-on part as a woman who’s moved on from the firm and found new purpose in her life; she distills a career’s worth of survival skills into a tight little monologue, then disappears back into the outside world.

T. Charles Erickson PhotoWith such depth and insight and clarity and concision, The Consultant can go further than most workplace comedies could ever dare. Unfortunately, it ultimately goes too far, with a mordant final scene that whisks us out of the office entirely and shows, to little purpose, how far some of the characters’ less desirable traits could take them if left unchecked. Thing is, that point has been made multiple times in the play already without having to send us home in a depressed mood. Ending on a downbeat note isn’t really the problem. It’s just one plot twist and stylistic shift too many, too late in the game.

The Consultant is a short, sharp, intermissionless 90-minute jolt of workplace humor tempered by harsh realities, coarse language and base human impulses. It’s beautifully acted—the corridor camaraderie can have a dance-like beauty beyond the well-timed comedy shtick—and so fully planned and thought through that it earns the right to charge off in multiple directions, whether plotwise or subplotwise or just stylistically. There are slowburns and rapid-fire ripostes, high dudgeon and lowbrow gross-outs. If the ending is oddly unsatisfying, well, we’ve all had workdays like that, right?

The Consultant is at Long Wharf Stage II, 222 Sargent Dr., through Feb. 9. (203) 787-4282.

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