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Beowulf christens its new home with an amusing play about corporate bureaucracy

It must be unnerving to appear in a comedy whose sardonic wit is too low-key to elicit many laughs from the audience. When you're acting in an "amusing" play rather than a "funny" play, you can't judge how the audience is responding until the applause at the end of an act.

At least the concluding applause was warm on opening night of Richard Strand's The Death of Zukasky, the production with which Beowulf Alley Theatre Company is christening its new facility, in the former Johnny Gibson building at Sixth Avenue and Broadway Boulevard. Until the last moment, things had been pretty quiet in the 50-seat theater, except for one ringing cell phone whose owner should really be more cognizant of Arizona's lax gun laws.

Strand's work doesn't lend itself to belly laughs. It's a wicked little comedy set in a corporate office on the Chicago Loop. The Zukasky of the title is the company sales director, who drops dead in his office, leaving three sales reps vying to replace him.

Anne seems the logical choice; she's a steady, competent worker with a decade of experience with the company. But she is a woman, which of course makes no difference, none at all, couldn't possibly, to the pompous good-ol'-boy manager who will name Zukasky's successor. But she does tend to wear zebra-patterned dresses rather than conservative pinstripes. That could be a problem.

A.C., a relative newcomer to the company, would dearly love the promotion himself, but he lacks seniority and gives the impression of being nervous, perhaps because he's actually quite devious.

But the job seems sure to go to Barry, a fatuous over-age frat-boy type, a yes-man expert in the little gestures of male bonding. He doesn't seem smart enough to handle the promotion, but he's clearly the boss' favorite.

A.C. sees this coming--in fact, he mysteriously knows quite a lot about what other people are saying and planning--and he immediately begins pitting his colleagues against each other, employing methods no doubt taught at the Niccolò Machiavelli School of Business Administration.

The Death of Zukasky premiered about 15 years ago at the prestigious Humana Festival in Louisville. If Strand were more vicious, this could pass for a Neil LaBute script, but while Strand's characters are manipulative, they aren't nearly as cruel as those in such LaBute films as In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things.

Speaking of film, I attended this play in the company of a friend who admits to having seen no more than 10 stage productions in his life and much prefers movies. It took him all of this show's first half to come to terms with the slightly heightened nature of stage acting, but ultimately he allowed that this would have been quite entertaining as a movie or a television show, where the wit and claustrophobia of the story could be more narrowly focused than on stage. (This, bear in mind, is the opinion of a guy whose idea of good entertainment is switching between Dario Argento horror videos and the Weather Channel. So much for his education in Greek and Latin classics.)

At any rate, my friend was rightly most impressed by the performance of Carrie Hill as Anne. She followed a steady arc from sensibility to incredulity to exasperation and ultimately sheer panic, carefully modulating her emotions and effortlessly blossoming as the central figure in what is on the surface an ensemble play.

Stephen Elton directed the action with easy naturalism and brought a similar quality to his portrayal of Barry, a clueless yet not cartoonish fellow dismayingly similar to the unaccountably successful people found in offices everywhere. Steve McKee got off to a less fluid start as A.C., too fast and stagey in his first couple of scenes. Soon, though, he settled into the role, and was especially good in the play's best scene, in which A.C. tempts Anne with escalating sums of money; she's not corruptible, which is why she's unfit for management. Bill Epstein was also solid as Henry, the boss, a hint at what Barry might be like 20 years on.

Beowulf Alley is finally launching this production after several delays; indeed, city officials approved public use of the building only hours before the opening-night curtain. The theater is still a work in progress, but it's perfectly functional and comfortable already, with what seems to be an excellent lighting system, and good acoustics and sight lines. As with the company's only prior full production, three years ago at the Temple of Music and Art's Cabaret Theatre, close attention is paid to the details of set design (by Fred Kinney and Elton), and the overall effect is thoroughly professional.

It's an excellent if belated housewarming for an ambitious company; let's hope the group can build momentum during the summer and justify installing another 50 seats or so by fall.

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