Business of Business

LTC’s Below the Belt hits spectacularly in the head and heart

If you'd like a splendidly hilarious intermission from the Sturmund Drang of life as we know it these days—and seriously, who wouldn't?—get yourself to Live Theatre Workshop's wildly hilarious production of Below the Belt. Annette Hillman has directed Richard Dresser's play with the requisite wicked combo of comic passion, extreme acting and slashing satire.

It's a biting, gnawing, gnashing, hard to swallow (and possibly reflux) treatment of the business of, well, business. The competition, the backbiting, the paranoia of personnel as they claw and scheme for their places in the pecking order of "human resources."

Dresser sets his story in the hideous digs that pass for office and residence in the compound of an unspecified company in an unspecified desert in an unspecified foreign country. We don't know what the company does or what our guys actually do, but the department we witness in all its profound convolution is that of the "checkers."

The set up is that a new checker has arrived and is assigned to share a room with a veteran checker, who is immediately suspicious and viciously unwelcoming of the new guy. Veteran Hanrahan (Stephen Frankenfield) is on the attack immediately when he responds to a friendly, normal-seeming Dobbitt (Steve Wood), his new roomie and co-worker, even as Dobbitt merely introduces himself and tries in a non-threatening, normal way to establish a relationship with his co-worker and to get the general lay of the land. Their boss, Merkin (Matthew C. Copley), calls them to his office, and the three of them are off to the races of perfectly pitched theatrical insanity.

Dresser's script is a dark but hilarious send-up of the corporate way. He insinuates himself behind the expensively designed logo, the carefully worded rules, the ladder of authority and the corporate-speak that is like a foreign language to those not in the loop, and in doing so he maniacally uncovers the existence of an amorphous blob of human ineptitude. His characters are adrift from their families, their sense of who they really are and the reasons they are participants in this odd world in the first place. His fellows are everybody's fools. And they are outrageously entertaining.

Hillman seems to be entirely familiar with the world Dresser has created, and she allows her actors to romp through the full geography of its absurdity.

Frankenfield's Hanrahan is downright scary at times as he zooms around the stage, one minute with a vicious energy and the next, with even more. He does manage to find a moment or two of humanity, and that allows us to tolerate, and sometimes even embrace, him. Frankenfield has a very intense energy as an actor, and it can sometimes be overwhelming in relation to other cast members, but here it serves him well. And you absolutely must, I repeat must, see him dance.

Wood, like Frankenfield, a LTW regular, gives another winning performance. As the Bible-reading good Joe, he seems to want genuinely to be a good teammate, to please the boss and Hanrahan and collect the rewards of his endeavors. As the outsider, he brings to our attention some of the troubling aspects of the work in which this crew is involved. For instance, he wonders why the river is full of colors not normally seen in nature, and why there are odd, mutant creatures roaming the compound. Wood also has a good feel for physical comedy and this skill serves him well here.

Copley also gives us a well-considered character as the boss, Merkin (great name, no?), a man ready to do whatever he must to hang on to his power, if, in fact, one can call it that, and to keep his "checkers" just uncomfortable enough with each other and with their status in the company that they never mistake him as one of them, even if he wants one to consider the other a closer pal.

This trio works really well together and they make us laugh out loud again and again. Whether the three are engaging in a one-upmanship conversation about their wives giving birth to their sons, or their unknowing maneuvering that dissolves and at the same time re-creates their jobs and relationships within the corporation, they serve up Dresser's play with gusto.

Richard Gremel's set perfectly makes us wonder if we are in a business compound or in a prison, and Michael Martinez's sound designs floods our senses with awful Muzak.

Dresser's purpose is not to reveal some great lesson about the stultifying absurdity of corporate life; no, it's to make us laugh. In the hands of director Hillman and her trio of competent clowns who really get the script, the jokes and the style, Dresser succeeds.

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