June 17, 2015

"Office Politics" Sidesteps Its Real Drama

Office Politics is the kind of show that I rarely see. Its playwright, director and actors are all new to me. Its entire run, including previews, is just two weeks (it closes this weekend). And it’s playing at the tiny June Havoc Theater in the Garment District, in a Cineplex-type space where you can intermittently hear the play that’s running next door.

But what drew me to the show was the description of its storyline: “when a white male co-worker makes an off-the-cuff racially insensitive remark to his boss’s black female assistant, what seems like a harmless joke snowballs, suddenly catapulting the ad sales office of a women's magazine into turmoil.”

I’m always up for plays that deal with meaty subjects like race and class and this one sounded like a not-so-distant relative of Rasheeda Speaking, another play about interracial office politics that fascinated my friend Joy and me earlier this year (click here for my review).

And so she and I thought it might be fun to see this one and compare the approaches that the playwrights, both white, took to the continually knotty issue of race, particularly as it plays out in the kinds of quotidian offices where most of have, at one time or another, worked.

The central character in Office Politics is Tonya, the black single mom of a teenage son and a recent hire at a magazine called Healthy Woman. Tonya’s the only black person on the staff but that doesn’t cause any problems initially. She’s great at her job as the publisher’s assistant and her co-workers are genuinely welcoming, especially Len, a nice-guy sales rep who develops a crush on her.

Conflict arises when Bruce, the alpha-male in the office, says something suggesting that Tonya’s son, whom he's never met, is a street hood. She demands an apology. He refuses to give one. Len gets stuck in the middle. 

It’s the kind of he-said-she-said scenario that takes on an even more volatile edge when race is mixed in. Playwright Marcy Lovitch, who has a degree in journalism, works hard to give equal time to every side of the argument so that no one comes off as entirely right or entirely wrong. 

That might be admirable in real life but such deliberate evenhandedness can suck the energy right out of a drama so Lovitch tries to jazz things up with a subplot involving an affair between Bruce and another woman in the office who are cuckolding her husband who also works there.

Unfortunately, that second storyline is just an unnecessary distraction from the main one. Joel Drake Johnson kept his focus tightly on the race question in Rasheeda Speaking but neither show reaches any satisfying conclusions, an accurate reflection, I suppose, of the current uneasy state of race relations.

Where Rasheeda, a New Group production, holds an advantage was in its high-grade production values, which included the casting of the award-winning actresses Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest. 

Office Politics, which was funded in part by an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, has more limited resources but it does a surprising amount with the little it has.

Most of its seven-member cast have worked primarily in regional theater but they all, under the straight-ahead direction of Aimee Todoroff, do fine work, particularly Philip Guerette, whose naturally honest affect reminded me of a younger Thomas Sadowski.

The real standout, though, is set designer Sandy Yalkin, who found all sorts of clever ways to transform the small stage into various locales at the office and at a retreat where the co-workers go in a futile attempt to resolve their differences. 

Yalkin's ingenuity made me smile. In fact, the choices she made—and those of the committed actors—made me think that I should explore more of what the city's myriad small theaters have to offer.

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