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"What We're Up Against": Dated Look at Gender Politics in the Workplace

February 24, 2011

Magic Theatre's latest has its moments, but misses the mark on today's issues

Experiencing “What We’re Up Against,” Theresa Rebeck’s new social comedy focusing on sexual discrimination in the workplace, reminds one of the lurid world of 1950s Madison Avenue advertising agencies portrayed in the TV series “Mad Men.” Rebeck’s play gives the impression that office politics haven’t evolved much since the era of suppliant secretaries in pencil-line skirts and their sexist, skinny tie-wearing male bosses.

“What We’re Up Against,” which is currently receiving its world premiere run at the Magic Theatre through March 6, centers on the unhappiness of a bright, conniving young architect, Eliza, whose frustration at being sidelined by her male co-workers leads her to trick her blustering misogynistic manager into exposing his double-standards.

Set in contemporary times, Rebeck’s taut, expletive-laden prose is full of arrogant posturing by the cast of male architects. When project leader Ben (Rod Gnapp), junior architect Weber (James Wagner) and office head Stu (Warren David Keith) aren’t putting down or patronizing the few women around them, they’re fearing for their safety with cries of “she’s after your balls!”

The firm’s two women architects occupy opposing sides in the corporate gender dynamics debate. The outspoken, volatile Eliza (played by a plucky and empathetic Sarah Nealis) embraces confrontation and devises underhand schemes to get ahead. Unpopular and mistrusted, she risks losing her position within six months of being hired.

Eliza’s unthreatening and professionally mediocre colleague, Janice (a gamine-ditzy Pamela Gaye Walker) adopts very different survival tactics. By sucking up to her male colleagues at every opportunity, she’s managed to hold on to her job for eight years.

While this one-dimensional view of office gender dynamics provides moments of comedic contrast — Eliza is as foul-mouthed as Janice is prim — Rebeck’s handling of the sexual discrimination themes appears very dated. Despite the slick and thoughtful production helmed by the Magic Theatre’s artistic director Loretta Greco, the playwright’s hackneyed vision undermines the credibility of her social criticism as well as the theatrical power of her writing.

More than anything, the overt chauvinism of scenes such as the opening one, in which architects Ben and Stu vent their hatred of women in general and Eliza in particular, evokes the machismo-laden early plays of David Mamet like “American Buffalo” and “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”

The throwback feeling isn’t surprising when you consider the fact that the first scene of “What We’re Up Against” started life as an eight-page script written 19 years ago.

Sexual bias claims continue to be rife in the United States today. (Gender discrimination cases accounted for nearly 30% of all charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2010). Yet the biases play out in more subtle ways than two decades ago. These days, there might be fewer blatantly sexist remarks flying around water coolers across the land. But there are plenty of lawsuits against companies for paying female employees less than male employees for the same jobs.

The Magic Theatre’s program notes include a statement about the median income levels for men and women architects ($70,330 versus $55,805 respectively.) And Skip Mercier’s geometric brushed steel and glass set design alludes visually to the ever-pervasive “glass ceiling” preventing women from reaching the same professional heights as men. But Rebeck’s drama barely touches upon the important pay-scale differential.

Instead, all Eliza can do is complain about the fact that her office is a closet at the far end of the hall and that her manager selects a dim-witted male colleague over her when it comes to working on a second-rate project involving the renovation of a suburban mall.

Intriguingly, what makes “What We’re Up Against” watchable, and even somewhat enjoyable, is the feeling that in its most inspired moments, the play is not about sexual discrimination in the workplace at all.

Like the obscuring frosted glass of the firm’s office windows, the comedy’s boring gender politics bluster obscures much more engaging material: Rebeck’s wry look at the deadening competitiveness of corporate America and its perverse drive to reward mediocrity at the expense of excellence.

The architects’ constant whining and jockeying for position, the nameless employees that pass behind the office doors intermittently throughout the play like so many anonymous drones and the restless movement of the sterile office furniture across the performance space all suggest a professional world of corrupt ambitions and restless, haggard souls.

Gender wars are just a small part of a much bigger problem, but you have to break through Rebeck’s rigid dramaturgy to see that fact.

The phrase “what we’re up against” is not, as Stu declares at one point early on in the play, a statement about men steeling themselves in the face of the weaker sex’s erroneous attempt to infiltrate a venerable corporate system. What we’re up against here is the corporate system itself.


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