The Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven has long been the home of world and regional premieres of new plays by interesting authors, carefully screened and considered to be on the brink of major exposure, and in some cases major acceptance by critics and public alike. One such is Heidi Schreck who has been produced at the Rattlestick in New York, at the Cape Cod Theater Project, and she’s worked on developing material at Playwrights Horizons, The Vineyard, Soho Rep and elsewhere in New York. In 2009 she won a Playwrighting Fellowship and the 2012 Sundance U. Cross Residency. She’s been published by Samuel French and the N.Y.Theatre Review. She’s also had steady work as an actor, and was a staff writer for season six of “Nurse Jackie”. A rather extensive apprenticeship, wouldn’t you agree? All of which leads to The Consultant, currently playing a World Premiere engagement at the Long Wharf under the direction of Kip Fagan, whose early credits are as elaborate and impressive as are Ms. Schreck’s.
I wish I could tell you that after all that, she has gotten it all right. Certainly she’s learned her craft. This 90 minute play’s material has been organized to fit comfortably in one set, the office reception and enclosed conference room at Sutton, Feingold and McGrath (SFM) a large pharmaceutical marketing company, and it’s based on incidents that happened to the playwright when she was hired to help an executive with his presentation skills at just such a firm. Clearly she kept her note pad at the ready, so we are introduced to the protagonist (well played, with a perky innocence and considerable charm by Clare Barron) who enters to tell the receptionist she ‘s just been hired to help the top designer who needs help in that regard, for though he’s the bright light in the company, is creative and appealing, he goes all haywire whenever he must face an audience, and that ‘s just what he has to do in the near future when he’s to make a presentation to promote a new product.
Ms. Schreck is clearly comfortable in this milieu – more than comfortable; she knows how the receptionist (Tania), one of the other executives (Mark), even how an ex employee (Barbara) who returns briefly late in the play would behave. She has a keen ear for colloquial dialogue, and she’s been given a cast of excellent actors who know how to personalize these characters, to show us their many colors. There is an offstage character too who clearly makes all the big decisions, who affects the present and future status of all who work there. The play is set in 2009, two years after the start of “the great recession” so the tension level is way up there. Unemployment has peaked at 10%, hitting double digits for the first time in 26 years, and a lot depends on the results of the impending presentation.
The set designed by Andrew Boyce instantly tells us we are in a cold, impersonal world that is all gloss on the very expensive surface. The zippy dialogue gives us insight into who these people might be away from the office. The challenge that Amelia (the young instructor) faces is apparent when we meet Jun Suk, the Korean from Seoul (raised in New York), who is the white hope designer who must learn how to land the account, for he’s bland, agreeable, but not very compelling.
Nelson Lee is ideal casting; the “Jun Suk” he delivers lacks confidence, and is the perfect patsy. His early attempts at delivering what Amelia wants are funny, and we find ourselves rooting for him. Tania, the receptionist also earns our interest, and her side story of rejection and revenge, though peripheral, is colorful and beautifully played by Cassie Beck. Darren Goldstein as the executive in charge of this presentation is married, has children, and has a love/hate relationship with his job. With only one exception, these four are all we get to see of the staff, which I found unsatisfactory. The stakes for them are high — but they all need their jobs, and they are all afraid that the tough times will get them in the end.
But Ms. Schreck has not written them a play. Instead she’s given us a character sketch of just four ordinary people. Yes, catastrophe strikes some of them, but even success leaves the others stranded, for their own empty lives are not rewarding enough to offer them more than temporary relief. Only “Barbara”, the ex employee who shows up once, seems to have the healthy attitude about what matters in life that will keep her afloat, keep her alive and into life just as long as her body and mind hold up. As played by Lynne McCollough, I’d never have let her leave S.F. and M.
All l could take away with me from this play is that anxiety can be good (it can motivate us to abandon fear and move forward) or bad (it can force us to make all the wrong choices.) But in either case it seems to be dealing with How to Succeed in
Business, and that’s already been done – and done well. It doesn’t seem to have a clue as to how to find any sort of fulfillment in the early 21st Century and I don’t think that sort of thinking will get us very far. It certainly shouldn’t be the theme of a comedy.
My conclusion: “Interesting, polished, well crafted, but ultimately it doesn’t have anything very original to say to us.” In her business life, Ms. Schreck clearly was not happy, and in this play it appears she would like to share that unhappiness with us.
The Consultant is onstage at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through February 9, 2014. Details and tickets.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
Richard Seff is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.