The house lights don’t go down right away when Steven Levenson’s Core Values starts, trapping us all in the dingy, claustrophobic office conference room depicted onstage. A flustered, anxious young woman unpacks enough miniature-size Poland Spring bottles that we already know the meeting about to take place will last a very, very long time. For anyone who’s ever worked an office job, the uncomfortable familiarity is already kicking in, and it’s only going to get worse when the purposefully jovial boss starts writing on the whiteboard and we realize we’re witness to a weekend-long in-house retreat, attended by most (though not all) of the staff of a small, struggling travel agency, henceforward to be known as Skyline Leisure Management.
Times are hard, both in the economy at large (the flustered yet eager young Eliot, we learn, has been interviewing for months at retail jobs and getting nowhere; she’s so thrilled to be working at something, anything, that she accepted the offer on the spot yesterday and showed up bright and early this morning) and in the travel industry in particular, as online sales and tightened belts send customers elsewhere. Over the past few years, this retreat has been scaled down from a junket in Miami to a conference suite at the local Hampton Inn (with free coffee and snacks included) to this in-house event with forced cheer and 99-cent-store Hawaiian-themed decorations. Times aren’t so great in the personal lives of any of the staff members represented here either: Richard, the owner and proprietor, is still smarting from a divorce and the way it’s changed his relationship with his kids; Nancy, the star employee, has marital stresses of her own; and Todd, the IT guy wants more from his job and his relationship.
And even in these straitened circumstances, things aren’t going particularly smoothly: the office printer is broken, and Todd has been dragging his feet about getting it fixed, so updates to the agendas can’t be printed; the binders containing those agendas were put together in a slapdash way by Tracy, who just quit for a TV role and was replaced by Eliot; nobody told the hapless Eliot part of her job was ordering in breakfast (and when, on day two, she takes a hint and shows up with bagels, she’s supplied the wrong condiments); and Richard is singing the praises of a training packet that turns out not to exist.
Levenson (and director Carolyn Cantor) get the details right, and the rhythms of office culture: the mixture of dread, resentment, and camaraderie that go into team-building exercises; the unhelpful artificiality of the workplace role-playing situation; the awkward semi-friendships and fragile intimacy of office relationships. One of the play’s strengths is the way Levenson starts from the most distanced, cynical view of this event, as a place no one wants to be (except for the eager-beaver new girl)--and slowly reveals both the genuine emotional ties among these people and the very distinct limitations of those ties as the basis for any kind of psychological support system. And alongside the sharpness of the observations, Levenson and Cantor show real gentleness toward these characters, toward their striving to find places in the world both professionally and emotionally.
The play also captures well the central place work takes in our lives even when we don’t want it to, the way our personal disappointments and triumphs get bound up with what we do all day. Richard’s children won’t visit his new bachelor pad because its hallway smells like ketchup, so he’s focusing ever harder on his business and his dogged hopes that the industry will turn around. Nancy’s husband is behaving like a child, so she’s striving for something more professionally. Nobody liked the departed Tracy, who wasn’t very good at her job and perhaps didn’t really need to be replaced, but admitting she didn’t need to be replaced means admitting that things might not actually pick up anytime soon, so Eliot gets the job that also seems to be the only point of engagement in her life right now. The fact that so much of our lives add up to agendas and trust exercises and whiteboards is both numbingly terrifying and strangely comforting.
Other than the crispness of the scene breaks, the style favors a lived-in realism rather than more explicit theatricality, but the intense intimacy of the setting and performances (especially with the stage placed in the center of the playing space, with audience on both sides) gives impact. The production elements, especially Lauren Helpern’s set with its perfect array of downmarket travel posters and Traci Klainer Polimeni’s lighting with its abundance of dingy fluorescents, are all as carefully calibrated to the details as the writing. And all four actors are terrific: Reed Birney as Richard, using his forced enthusiasm to cover desperate loneliness, and knowing he’s not very good at it; the twitchy Paul Thureen as Todd, a mixture of bravado, unwarranted gumption, and panicky anxiety; Susan Kelechi Watson as Nancy, using composure and poised reserve to keep secrets of her own; and Erin Wilhelmi as Eliot, trying to channel an excess of nervous energy into a show of competence and enthusiasm.
If the overall setting--the slow, creeping dread of an industry coming to terms with its own decline and trying to recalculate its internal culture--is sometimes reminiscent of Glengarry Glen Ross, the emotional register is both gentler and more intimate than Mamet. Core Values is often a very funny play, but it also speaks some very sad truths about the state of the American economy.