So what, exactly, goes on behind the concrete walls of those large government office buildings? Writer Jason Ford offers you a provocative glimpse in GS-14, which opened last night for its third consecutive year at the Capital Fringe Festival.
He shows you a handful of characters who are dedicated–if not obsessed–with developing a database that paramedics could use during a terrorist attack. It could save lives, they remind each other–thousands of lives.
And these same characters remark, quote pointedly, that the hard-earned cash of twelve American taxpayers is being used to fund the salary of the office’s laziest employee–an employee who is impossible to fire.
This 90-minute spoof on life in the federal workplace communicates a serious message beneath its comedic moments. It shows viewers just how difficult it is to maintain a belief in the public service when your coworkers don’t have the same belief in the mission of their work.
But the serious message is also the performance’s sharpest. Its many attempts to use comedy to illustrate the absurdity of government bureaucracy fall flat after the first few in-jokes.
Anyone who has ever worked in an office — government or otherwise — knows how these jokes go. Hank, the upper-level manager, wants to tell Megan, a young female analyst, to dress more appropriately, but he has to be careful not to violate the workplace harassment policy. He faces a similar challenge in his attempt to tell Theo, a young male analyst who loves to wear long women’s skirts, to show up to work in a suit and tie.
Of course, he fumbles both situations. And both situations make the audience chuckle about how written policies and unwritten expectations make everyone act unnaturally in the workplace.
But some of the laughter in the audience — at the least my laughter — was motivated by discomfort. Jokes that make fun of political correctness are the hardest ones to make, and GS-14 doesn’t deliver them with the necessary delicate punchline.
The performance also offers a commentary on workplace inertia and the difficulty of acting on new ideas The opening scene establishes Hank as a much more transgressive character than his taupe-wearing and down-trodden appearance conveys. The austere setting initially seems an unfitting backdrop for the boldness of his ideas. Talking to Bonnie, a human resources representative, he shows that he’s not like other managers. He wants to get rid of Evan, his lazy underling. And he wants to do it in the name of his beloved database.
But Hank’s brave new approach to management quickly fades into the background of what turns into a repetitive office squabble. The play moves fleetingly from scene to scene and, much like a beaurocrat’s daydream, fails to make a larger — or funnier — statement about the trials and triumphs of the federal workplace.
If you find humor in petty office politics, you will find this production entertaining. If not, don’t give this performance a second thought.
GS-14 has 4 more performances at Spooky Universe – Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC.