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"Down-sizing," "re-organizing," and "streamlining" are some of the terms corporate executives use to describe the firing of employees. In Descent (A Darwinian Comedy), playwright Tom Patrick presents the physical and psychological toll of such actions in a way that makes you burst out laughing but also leaves you greatly disturbed. With strong performances and well-crafted dialogue, the play is well worth the emotional upheaval.

Descent, which opens the Stage Door Acting Ensemble of New York's inaugural season, is a dark comedy about two men who must deal first-hand with corporate downsizing. Dan Lindquist (Michael Stebbins) is a soft-spoken, nice guy who has no desire to "play the game" when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder. He's just content to have a job.

All that changes when Lindquist is unable to compete in the cutthroat world created by his employer during a period of cutbacks. His subsequent firing puts a strain on Lindquist's marriage and causes a further deterioration of his self-esteem, especially when he doesn't embrace the aggressive, "don't take no for an answer" approach of his career counselor (C. Andrew Bauer).

Lindquist's colleague Knox (Ron Bopst) has a different philosophy when faced with the same situation. Promoted for developing the evaluation that eventually cost Lindquist his job, Knox accidentally finds out that he will soon be eliminated as well. Instead of accepting his pending demise, Knox beats his boss (J.M. McDonough) to the punch, informing him that he has taken an offer to join his company's competitor.

Although their careers take different turns, Knox and Lindquist's paths cross three years later. Knox--now a successful executive--finds himself interviewing Lindquist for a new position. Lindquist has not faired well over the years, forced to take a series of demeaning temp jobs and deal with a variety of disturbing personal issues. But on this day, Lindquist is determined not to leave his former colleague's office without the promise of a second interview. And Knox quickly learns how far Lindquist will go to make that promise a reality.

Given the subject matter, Patrick could have fallen into the trap of filling his play with too much commentary on the modern workplace and too little character development. Instead, he effectively walks the tightrope, using crisp dialogue and identifiable situations to get his views across.

Stebbins enjoys himself enormously on that tightrope, doing a fabulous job as the nebbish-like Lindquist. Indeed, given the many occasions when his character is revealed through physical, rather than realistic, humor, it would be easy to make Lindquist one-dimensional. Stebbins, however, makes us feel the desperation, pain, and rage building inside his character as the play goes on. In a fine performance, Bopst is totally believable as he transforms Knox from a naïve, loyal junior executive into an aggressive, unfeeling senior exec whose loyalty remains firmly and solely with himself. C. Andrew Bauer is right on target as Wannamaker, the career counselor who is part Tony Robbins and part drill sergeant; J.M. McDonough has some nice moments as Carnahan, Knox's seemingly supportive but conniving boss.

Credit must also go to director Shawn Fagan, who wisely guides his actors away from pushing their performances over the top--in a play like this, a tempting thing to do. At some moments, of course, emotions run appropriately wild, but you never believe that conflict arises merely for the sake of creating false drama.

Descent serves up corporate life as a never-ending battleground, where the heartless are rewarded for their ingenuity and the weak are tossed aside until they take charge of their fate. You may disagree with Patrick's depiction (especially if you're in management), but you'll find it compelling to watch.

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