Is there any other contemporary actor who does middle-aged existential despair as well as Reed Birney? From Circle Mirror Transformation to Picnic, Birney has made a career out of playing put-upon sad sacks with a heart of gold who just want to love, be loved, or gain more than their current lot. In Core Values, Steven Levenson's melancholy comedy directed by Carolyn Cantor at Ars Nova, Birney proves once again why he's the go-to guy for this kind of role; except the results, much like the play itself, are exceedingly familiar.
Core Values is set in the graying conference room of a midlevel Manhattan travel agency (designed with perfect corporate blandness by Lauren Helpern) in which a weekend staff retreat is taking place. CEO Richard (Birney) and three of his employees, Nancy (Susan Kelechi Watson), a salesperson with an ailing young son; Todd (Paul Thureen), the tech guy with poor phone skills; and Eliot (Erin Wilhelmi), the new girl, are expected to review sales reports and trust exercises, and set long-term goals for the future. This being 2012, customers are few and far between and sales are tanking. Divorced single dad Richard, meanwhile, is just looking to keep the business afloat.
Under Cantor's superb direction, the four-member cast expertly navigates the play's tricky terrain, nailing the awkwardly comic moments as well as the underlying sadness in each character's life. It's a bit unfortunate, then, that Levenson's play seems so familiar. We've seen this concept before, in everything from TV's The Office to Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, and not enough new light is shed.
Still, it's an entertaining piece, with many genuinely funny, laugh-out-loud moments. It is side-splitting what Cantor and Wilhelmi manage to do with a stage direction that reads "She rifles through the shopping bags and pulls out far too many miniature water bottles." (Wilhelmi is also quite moving in a monologue about the hopeless job market.) Thureen, a member of the rising theater troupe The Debate Society, and Watson tread nicely in the awkwardness of work life, from the almost paralyzing fear of asking for a raise to the relief that comes with telling someone you've found a new job.
As for Birney, he's played this role many, many times, and he certainly excels at it, burrowing himself deep in Richard's personal fortress of solitude. Never looking quite comfortable in Emily Rebholz's well-worn costumes, Richard is a man who just wants to be loved — by his coworkers and his family — and be able to give everyone what they want in return. But life, on occasion, has a funny way of making that impossible.