The men swill scotch and complain about the woman doing actual work in the office just below them in Theresa Rebeck's What We're Up Against, now making its off-Broadway debut at WP Theater. We see a blunt visual representation of the patriarchy in Narelle Sissons's two-tier set — which places the women on the bottom office floor and the men on the top floor — but is this just a reductive distortion of the American workplace? With its undeniably sharp perspective and neat archetypal characters, What We're Up Against is guaranteed to infuriate — which is why you should see it.
It takes place at a small architectural firm in 1992 (the year after Anita Hill helped make "sexual harassment" a household phrase). Senior manager Stu (Damian Young) kvetches to Ben (Jim Parrack) about new architect Eliza (Krysta Rodriguez). Stu resents that the firm's owner (who he suspects is sleeping with Eliza) hired her. "What do we need another woman for? Janice is one," Ben commiserates, referencing the firm's other female architect (Marg Helgenberger).
Stu is especially peeved that Eliza has been pestering him to work on the expansion of a shopping mall that has significant structural problems. Eliza has a design that Stu knows will address the structural issues, but he excludes her in favor of a young male architect (Skylar Astin, hilariously playing a golden-boy faux genius). Unlike Janice, Eliza refuses to wait for work to come to her; she's going to get her designs built and will steamroll over anyone who stands in her way.
There's more than a whiff of David Mamet about What We're Up Against, not just in its salty language, but in its unapologetic contrivance in order to press a point. At least in Rebeck's case, this is forgivable because the story is dramatically compelling, the rage behind it undeniably authentic, and the characters are recognizably human.
Rodriguez's stirring performance makes it difficult to label this as purely a 90-minute polemic. Her Eliza is undoubtedly brilliant, but she is also arrogant and dismissive of the talents of her coworkers, including Janice, whom she calls "incompetent" and "mediocre." Her charge that Janice is a "Nazi collaborator," colluding with the men who are looking to undermine Eliza, seems like a bridge too far — at least until Janice actually tries to help Stu pass off one of Eliza's designs as his own, hoping that Stu will look favorably on her during the next review period. It would be easy to condemn Janice for her actions if not for Helgenberger's sympathetic portrayal of a woman in a no-win situation. Her bad habits (instantly agreeing with her male colleagues, waiting her turn) are the mechanisms she developed in order to survive in a work environment designed to exclude her.
Young's unwavering portrayal of Stu as an indignant drunk certainly establishes that hostile setting early on. Don't be surprised if you feel your blood pressure rising just from the sound of his voice. Parrack handsomely embodies the more nuanced role of Ben, who would be the male romantic lead if this were a Hollywood screenplay. Thankfully, Rebeck charts a different course.
Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt's decision to direct What We're Up Against as a period piece does nothing to diminish the feeling that the issues it tackles are depressingly relevant (the play began as a one-act in 1992). Tilly Grimes's costumes evoke the '90s without pulling too much focus (although she gets away with a couple of hideous neckties). Sound designer M.L. Dogg advances Campbell-Holt's relentless pace (and period specificity) by playing up-tempo, '90s-style pop music during transitions. Lighting designer Grant Yeager turns the stage into a tiny dance club, which further quickens the pulse. It's a manipulative trick to sustain our fury, and it works.
Even if you disagree with Rebeck's take on the way women are treated in the workplace, it is impossible to resist this ever-unfolding Machiavellian tale. Nor can we avoid comparing the characters and their behavior to our own lives, reexamining the ways we might unconsciously contribute to everyday inequality. That makes What We're Up Against an uncomfortable but vital night at the theater.
- Theresa Rebeck
- Marg Helgenberger
- Krysta Rodriguez
- Narelle Sissons
- Jim Parrack
- Skylar Astin
- Adrienne Campbell-Holt
- M.L. Dogg
- WP Theater
- Damian Young
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