|WHAT WE'RE UP AGAINST|
In light of current events, one can’t help but wonder if someone at the Women’s Project has ESP or a crystal ball, since the decision to produce Theresa Rebeck’s “What We’re Up Against,” her 1992 screed about misogyny in the workplace, could barely be more timely. In many ways, though, good timing turns out to be the production’s strongest asset. While Rebeck’s script (set in 1992) is certainly thought-provoking – especially as it reminds us how little progress we have made in 25 years – it is also somewhat superficial and full of two-dimensional characters. Fortunately, a first-rate cast and Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s mostly astute direction help elevate the proceedings.
The play, which is set in an architecture firm (nicely evoked by Narelle Sissons’ two-level set), focuses primarily around the mistreatment of Eliza (the invaluable Krysta Rodriguez, who manages to make the character suitably angry without being too shrill). Having been employed for five months, she’s been completely ignored by her boss, the bitter, heavy-drinking and decidedly woman-hating Stu (an effective Damian Young), and relegated to a converted broom closet. As one of the other characters sharply points out, she is being treated less well than the office assistants.
Adding insult to insult, Stu seems convinced Eliza was only hired because she’s sleeping with the firm’s big boss, the forever unseen David. However, we discover early on that, whether or not that’s the case, Eliza is talented. Very talented, in fact. She’s managed to solve a particularly tricky problem about air ducts in a shopping mall, a conundrum that has stumped her colleagues, firm veteran Ben (a fine Jim Parrack) – who seems only slightly more enlightened than Stu in his opinion of women – pompous newcomer Ronald Weber (a spot-on Skylar Astin, who will likely remind many audience members of the millennials in their current offices), and even Janice (Emmy Award winner Marg Helgenberger, very good if underused), the only other woman in the office. Eventually, Eliza resorts to some drastic and underhanded measures (though nothing, it is implied, that a man wouldn’t do) to prove her worth to the firm.
As much as Eliza’s mistreatment by her male co-workers would seem to be the point of the play, Rebeck ups the ante in the second act by eventually pitting Eliza against the somewhat older Janice, who has adopted a go-along-to-get-along attitude in order to survive. That includes not only disagreeing with Eliza about her approach to a different project (which Rebeck considers a cardinal sin – a point that I found ridiculous), but also lying about her own actions (which is rightly objectionable).
As the play concludes, the two women share their disappointment and disgust about their situation, wondering aloud “Why is it still like this?” It’s a legitimate question – then and now. But one wishes Rebeck had chosen to actually explore the answer – maybe like discussing the failure of Congress to pass the Equal Rights Amendment -- rather than just leave that vague query hanging in the air. In the end, what the audience is up against in feeling satisfied is the playwright’s laziness.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Skylar Astin, Marg Helgenberger, Damian Young, Jim Parrack, Krysta Rodriguez
Women's Project Theatre
424 W. 55th St.
New York, NY 10019