A comedy about the production of a television fruit juice commercial. Sounds rather dry and technical, right? One would probably have to be in the industry to understand the play's humor, its terminology, and, in all likelihood, its pathos.
A half-hour into Rob Ackerman's Tabletop, a production of the Working Theatre running through August 5 at Dance Theatre Workshop, one discovers that a cheap production studio is the perfect setting for this touching tribute to working people. The play salutes those who may be preparing your double frappucino at a local coffee shop or those who once organized the food visible Seinfeld's sitcom refrigerator.
Indeed, as Ackerman expresses it in a program note to the production, Tabletop explores "how hard it is, both physically and emotionally, to capture on film, say, the act of pouring thick pink liquid into a perfect plastic cup placed atop a carefully-arranged pile of fresh fruit." In this play, this act--and the bruising of one of these fruits--becomes almost a Shakespearean drama as the characters in the play try to hide the fruit's imperfection from the boss.
The foundation of the play would fall apart, of course, if the boss, Marcus (Rob Bartlett), was played without the cold-heartedness and megalomania the role requires. Bartlett takes this challenge effortlessly, instantly embodying every boss you've ever hated.
Staying true to its tribute, however, Tabletop gives less emphasis to Marcus' character than to the employees he terrorizes. The audience meets Andrea (Elizabeth Hanley Rice), Marcus' right-hand woman, who sacrifices her dreams for a paycheck in service to her boss' whims.
Then we meet her subordinates, including Oscar (Harvy Blanks), the first character to step on stage. Oscar is a kindhearted but sycophantic character whose subservience and brown skin make him feel like Marcus' "PG-13 Black man." We also meet Dave (Jack Koenig), a closeted homosexual scared to "come out" in an environment where the word "fag" is employed as a socially acceptable insult. These two actors deliver fine, touching performances, and their characterizations are well delineated and executed.
Yet perhaps the most interesting relationship in the play is between the remaining employees--Jeffrey (Dean Nolan) and Ron (Jeremy Webb). Ron is a meek and idealistic newcomer to his occupation who fancies his work high art and himself as a humble artist. This characterization is saliently portrayed through playwright Rob Ackerman's dialogue. For example, to disguise a bruised apple from the merciless eye of the camera, Ron leans it slightly, proudly declaring, "It's Cezanne!"
Jeffrey, as skillfully played by Nolan, provides a stark antithesis to Ron's character. In response to Ron's glamorization of his job, Jeffrey retorts, "Look at your paycheck. It says 'Labor.'" As hardened as life and as direct as a steamroller, Jeffrey systematically shoots down all of Ron's self-perceptions, insisting that he and Ron are merely cogs in a machine.
Such conflict begs several interesting questions: Are Ron's delusions of grandeur really delusions, or is his energy and passion worth the words with which he describes them?...Is Jeffrey a realist to be admired, or an unhappy cynic, bent on bringing others down to his level?...If Ron is deluded, is this delusion a flaw that should be fixed or an asset, a source of pride that keeps him happy?
One can easily sympathize with Ron's character, thanks in no small part to the superlative performance of Webb. In a brilliant, introspective monologue, Ron explains, "I don't have much protective coloring. Predators can see me and eat me in one quick bite."
Webb's deft portrayal also provides for director Connie Grappo the perfect Tabletop antihero--a spasmodic pushover yet likeable worker who has "missed [his] uncle's funeral, [his] parent's anniversary, but [not]...one shoot day." How fitting for a theater company whose mission statement supports "culturally diverse plays that explore the lives of working people and the issues they confront in an increasingly complex world."
Indeed, he is the hero to anyone who has ever felt used, unappreciated, or abused at a job.