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RLT Gets Its "Ducts in a Row" with Theresa Rebeck’s What We’re Up Against

Brian Westbrook, Samantha Corey, and Simon Kaplan play Ben, Eliza, and Stu in Raleigh Little Theatre's SOLD-OUT production of <em>What We're Up Against</em> (photo by Brenna Berry Photography)

Brian Westbrook, Samantha Corey, and Simon Kaplan play Ben, Eliza, and Stu in Raleigh Little Theatre‘s SOLD-OUT production of What We’re Up Against (photo by Brenna Berry Photography)

Who remembers that annoyingly patronizing advertising jingle for Virginia Slims cigarettes? “You’ve come a long way, baby/To get where you’ve got to today/You’ve got your own cigarette now, baby/You’ve come a long, long way.”

As if having “your own cigarette” was an important accomplishment in the battle for gender equality! Was the illusion of “a slim cigarette for women only” supposed to somehow compensate for the realities of glass ceilings, salary gaps, and sexual harassment?

Raleigh Little Theatre community-theater production of Theresa Rebeck’s What We’re Up Against is a scathing indictment of corporate America’s gender bias. Part of the beauty of the play, however, is in that Ms. Rebeck manages to raise these poignantly serious, uncomfortable issues in a play that is so comfortably comic.

Under Heather J. Strickland’s direction, the current RLT production breezes along, keeping the audience laughing, thinking, reassessing, and (hopefully) vowing to help search for ways to reform. Indeed, Raleigh Little Theatre’s production in William Peace University’s Leggett Theater is well worth attending as both a “thought piece” and a first-rate entertainment.

Set in 1992 in the offices of a architectural firm, the play gives us “a day (or more) in the life” of its staff. Stu (Simon Kaplan) is the project manager, a knuckle-dragging master of mediocrity, comfortable with the status quo and starkly fearful of any boat-rocking change.

Eliza (Samantha Corey) is a talented, ambitious, dedicated employee. She’s been with the firm five months, languishing in the smallest imaginable office with her skills unused because Stu, refusing to recognize her value, never assigns her to any of the firm’s projects. His reason? Because she’s a woman, and her very presence is threatening his “world.” Indeed, we could almost imagine Stu declaring the goal: “make [this firm] great again” as he callously thwarts Eliza’s efforts to move forward. It is worth mentioning, also, that the men in this office all assume (with no evidence whatsoever) that Eliza is sleeping with David, their oft-mentioned but unseen boss.

Weber (Dan Cullen) has been with the firm four months — one month less than Eliza. Weber is best described as a blowhard. He spouts out worthless rhetoric that contributes nothing to getting the job done. Stu, however, treats him much better than he does Eliza. He has been assigned to work on important projects, and he has a spacious office with a “wet bar.”

Ben (Brian Westbrook) is an architect who has been with the firm for a long (but unspecified length of) time. He’s realistic but pragmatic. He can recognize Eliza’s talent and her intrinsic value to the firm; and he recognizes Weber’s buffoonery and total lack of skill; however, he can also recognize that siding with Stu is in his own best interest.

Janice (Benji Taylor Jones) has been with the firm for five years. Prior to Eliza being hired, she was the only woman architect at the firm. She knows the value of “playing ball” with the male-dominated hierarchy. She knows the dangers inherent in being “uppity,” and she behaves in a manner that is as submissive and unthreatening as possible. Can she and Eliza be allies? Or do the politics and pecking-order of this herd preclude that, thereby pitting them against each other?

We are made aware of two in-progress projects — an expansion of a shopping mall and the renovation of a courthouse. The mall expansion is the “biggie.” Everybody except Eliza has been assigned to this project, and nobody seems to be able to handle the annoying detail of the heating and air conditioning ducts. Eliza has the answer; she knows how to get their ducts in a row, but Stu refuses to include her in the project — repeatedly. She has to resort to trickery in order to score a partial victory.

In the hands of a less-talented cast, the characters in this play could easily have been seen merely as “types.” All of these actors, however, imbue their characters with nuances that illuminate their individual psyches. Simon Kaplan, for example, lets the subtlety of Stu’s insecurities show through from behind his macho bravado. Similarly, in Benji Taylor Jones’s Janice, we are able to see the split-second decision-making process that is necessary for her to keep up her façade as a non-wave-making team player. Also of great importance is the fact that these actors are masters of body language. For instance, the male members of the team repeatedly demonstrate the difference between “lack-of-respect” and “disrespect.”

The show’s production values are impeccable. Scenic designer Elizabeth Newton has supplied a well-laid out multi-levelled schematic of the firm that defines the various offices. It is no accident that Stu’s office is at the top level, that both women’s offices are at the bottom, and that Eliza’s office is ridiculously small. It is also no accident that these areas are signified in such a fashion as to suggest architectural schematics.

Costume designer Elspeth McClanahan captures the “look” of the 1990s and the choices each of these characters would make in their attire. Lighting designer Kaitlin Rider, properties mistress Ann Marie Crossman, and sound designer Areon Mobasher all contribute competently.

The Department of Picky-Picky wants to give a positive shout-out to the between-the-scenes professionalism of this production.

  1. While it is to be expected that actors acknowledge and respect “hallways” that are defined solely by lines on the floor during the scenes, it was impressive that the integrity of these lanes remained intact while actors entered and exited in the half-light of scene changes.
  2. Due, we are sure, to the efforts of stage manager David Wilk and assistant stage manager Elaine Petrone, we also witnessed a highly-regimented running crew (operating quickly and with near-military precision) who also seemed, when possible, to restrict their movements to the paths defined by the lines on the floor.

NOTE: This show’s run is (deservedly) SOLD OUT, but there is a waiting list. On opening night, there were four empty seats.

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 10th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/what-were-up-against/Event?oid=10660949. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 13th Triangle Review review by Dustin K. Britt, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/01/a-battle-of-the-sexes-becomes-a-melee-in-theresa-rebecks-what-were-up-against-at-rlt/.)

Raleigh Little Theatre presents WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST at 8 p.m. Jan. 18-20, 3 p.m. Jan. 21, 8 p.m. Jan. 25-27, and 3 8 p.m. Jan. 28 in Leggett Theater in Main Building at William Peace University, 15 E. Peace St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604.

NOTE: This show is currently completely SOLD OUT.

INFORMATION: 919-821-3111 or info@raleighlittletheatre.org.

SHOW: https://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows/what-were-up-against/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/128719577807480/.

RLT‘S 2017-18 SEASON: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/tickets/memberships.html.

PRESENTER: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/, https://www.facebook.com/RaleighLittleTheatre, https://twitter.com/RLT1936, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raleigh_Little_Theatre, and http://www.youtube.com/user/raleighlittletheatre.

VENUE: https://www.peace.edu/about/william-peace-theatre-2/.

DIRECTIONS: https://www.peace.edu/about/locations-directions/.

PARENTAL ADVISORY: On its website, RLT writes, “What We’re Up Against is recommended for mature audiences and features adult language. Parental guidance is suggested.”

NOTE 1: This show’s web page contains links to three podcasts about the play. For details about the podcast participants, click here and scroll down.

NOTE 2: There will be postshow discussions on Thursday, Jan. 18th, and Thursday, Jan. 25th. For details about the subjects and the participants, click here and scroll down.

NOTE 3: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21st, performance.

OTHER LINKS:

What We’re Up Against (2011 San Francisco and 2017 Off-Broadway dark comedy): http://wptheater.org/show/what-were-up-against/ (official website), http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/40973/what-were-up-against (Samuel French, Inc.), and http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/6465 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).

Theresa Rebeck (Brooklyn, NY playwright and screenwriter): http://theresarebeck.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/2252 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/theresa-rebeck-379131 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0714246/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theresa_Rebeck (Wikipedia).

Heather J. Strickland (Raleigh, NC director): https://raleighlittletheatre.org/people/heather-j-strickland/ (RLT bio), http://www.abouttheartists.com/artists/497625-heather-strickland (AboutTheArtists bio), https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=570185297 (Facebook page).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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