A comedy about the production of a television fruit juice commercial. Sounds rather dry and technical, doesn't it? One would probably have to be in the industry to understand the play's humor, its terminology, and, in all likelihood, its pathos. Right?
Absolutely not. A half-hour into Rob Ackerman's Tabletop, 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 in Seinfeld's sitcom refrigerator.
Indeed, as Ackerman expresses it in a program note, 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." This act--and the bruising of one piece of fruit--becomes almost a Shakespearean drama as the characters in the play try to hide the fruit's imperfection from the boss.
Tabletop would fall apart if the boss, Marcus (Rob Bartlett), were played without the cold-heartedness and megalomania the role requires. Bartlett rises to the challenge, instantly embodying every boss you've ever hated. Yet Tabletop appropriately gives less emphasis to Marcus' character than to the employees he terrorizes--e.g., Andrea (Elizabeth Hanley Rice), Marcus' right-hand woman, who sacrifices her dreams for a paycheck in service to her boss' whims.
We also meet Andrea's subordinates, including Oscar (Harvey Blanks), the first character to step on stage. Oscar is a kind-hearted but sycophantic fellow whose subservience and brown skin make him feel like Marcus' "PG-13 Black man." Then there's 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; their characterizations are well delineated and executed.
Perhaps the most interesting relationship in the play is that between the remaining employees: Jeffrey (Dean Nolan) and Ron (Jeremy Webb). Ron is a meek and idealistic newcomer to his occupation who sees his work as high art. This character is saliently portrayed through playwright Ackerman's dialogue. For example, to keep a bruise on an apple from the merciless eye of the camera, Ron leans it over slightly and proudly declares, "It's Cezanne!" Jeffrey, as skillfully played by Nolan, is the antithesis of Ron: 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 commendable? Is Jeffrey a realist to be admired, or an unhappy cynic bent on bringing others down to his level? If Ron is deluded, should that delusion be considered a flaw 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 a likeable worker who has "missed [his] uncle's funeral, [his] parents' anniversary, but [not] one shoot day."
How fitting for a theater company whose mission statement tells us that it favors "culturally diverse plays that explore the lives of working people and the issues they confront in an increasingly complex world." Ron is a hero to anyone who has ever felt used, abused, or unappreciated at a job.