The daily challenges faced by women in the workplace have increasingly become a cultural touchstone. In addition to traditional discussions of glass ceilings and equal pay, there is now an expanding awareness of the more subtle but equally problematic systemic inequalities women encounter in the office every day. Especially relevant? The phenomena Time recently called “manterrupting” and “bropropriating”: when men in the office unnecessarily interrupt women during meetings, and take credit for their ideas.
Theresa Rebeck’s What We’re Up Against, now at Keegan Theatre, is an exploration of all these biases. It’s a comedy, to be sure, and wryly funny throughout—but it’s also part drama, part morality play, part farce, and anything but subtle. If you spend your time at home reading men’s right’s activist forums on Reddit, this may not be the play for you. If you’re anyone else, the story, the performances and the staging combine to make this an enjoyable show—though not without some flaws.
The story centers around a talented new hire at an architecture firm, Eliza, played with an appropriate amount of frustration, fury and vengeance by Brianna LeTourneau, and men (and woman) who are in their own way contributing to her marginalization in the office. Stu (Peter Finnegan) is the boorish alcoholic in the corner office, who uses every sexist slur imaginable in describing his dislike of Eliza. Weber (Stephen Russel Murray) is a young hotshot who sucks up to Stu and, despite having far less talent than Eliza and being a more recent hire, has a much better office and actually gets assigned to projects. Ben (Michel Innocenti) is seemingly the only man with a conscience and cares most about actually getting the work done—but he’s still not without unconscious biases that he must learn to confront. And then there’s Janice (Carolyn Kashner), the other woman in the firm, who tries to go along to get along for the sake of her career, and simply pretends nothing is rotten in Denmark.
The quality of the production is first-rate, and the set design deserves a special shout-out. The backdrop is the floorplan of the architecture firm in which the action takes place. It’s not only thematically relevant, but serves as a constant visual reminder of the power dynamics at work in the firm and exactly who is close to whom, both figuratively and literally. And to accentuate the general theme, the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” introduces the action before the first scene, with other misogynistic tunes (“Run for your Life” by the Beatles and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, among others) serving as interludes during scene changes. As I said, it’s not subtle.
What We’re Up Against
closes October 15, 2016
Details and tickets
That has its advantages, but also its drawbacks. The main plot driver is Stu’s refusal to ask Eliza to solve a problem that is stumping everyone else at the firm. Stu knows that Eliza knows how to solve the problem, but he simply refuses to use her idea out of personal rivalry, and tasks the others with solving it. This obstinacy is representative of the characters as a whole. Finnegan brings comedy and quirkiness to the scotch-addled Stu, but the character is monolithic, and there’s only so much Finnegan can do to keep him interesting. Murray does a great turn as Weber, who somehow combines the worst affects of a Silicon Valley techbro with Shakespeare’s Polonius into one execrable whole. But their interactions with Eliza and with each other are all constrained by the predictability of their stereotypes.
The harshest and most dramatic scenes of the play come not from Eliza’s fiery response to the sexist men, but from her game of prisoner’s dilemma with Janice. The conflict between Eliza’s resistance and Janice’s complicity serves well to highlight the difficulties with either response to the institutionalized sexism of the workplace.
The conclusion is abrupt but rewarding with some measure of revenge having been achieved and some lessons learned about the difference between not contributing to a problem and actively working to solve it. And perhaps in this day and age where outright misogyny is taking such center stage, that’s the best outcome we can hope for.
What We’re Up Against by Theresa Rebeck . Directed by Susan Marie Rhea . The Cast: Brianna LeTourneau, Carolyn Kashner, Stephen Russell Murray, Michael Innocenti, Peter Finnegan .
Assistant Director: Lauren Miller . Light Designer: Allan Sean Weeks . Set Designer: Matthew J. Keenan . Properties and Set Dressing Design: Carol Hood Baker . Properties and Set Dressing Assistant: Katrina Wiskup . Sound Designer: Madeline Clamp: Costume Designer: Alison Samantha Johnson . Hair and Makeup Designer: Craig Miller . Stage Manager: Alexis Hartwick . Produced by Keegan Theatre. Reviewed by Dante Atkins.