The Private Sector
nytheatre.com review by Paul Hufker
June 26, 2011
Someone has been reading their Mamet. That’s the impression that washed over me as I exited The Private Sector, now playing at Theater for the New City. That is not to say that a young writer is not supposed to have strong antecedents of a (once) great writer whom they (ostensibly) admire, and pulling off Mamet’s rapid-fire and precise diatribes filled with his brand of intellectual and theatrical genius is certainly no small feat. So, kudos.
The play is set in two starkly contrasting yet cohesive acts and focuses around the rise and decline of four young people hired directly from their respective prestigious collegiate institutions by a massive hedge fund known as “Anticline Capital.” The first act takes place in the woods. Fallen orange and yellow leaves are the sole set pieces for the long first scene, and not only suggest the bareness of the surroundings, but elicit the unpolished naivete of the new-hires on this, their first business retreat. When the unorthodox man who is to run the retreat (a man whose opinion may well determine rank, position, and lifespan with Anticline) arrives, he serves to inspire in them nothing more than a confusion and desperation (albeit comedic) that pits the potential lovers against one another, the raging and furious outsider against the pleasantly eccentric and geeky computer programmer, and on the whole, everyone against everyone including himself. Though this may well have been the plan. Long discussions in the woods about “radical honesty” and unorthodox transparency (rarely found in finance) amidst the communal confusion give rise to a plot twist that leads us into the second act. And that act is the reason to see this show.
After a barrage of clever dialogue and good acting from actors whose young characters seem to have more hormones than sense—a sentiment that generally comprises the first act—the second act begins (and ends) in a board room. While I left the first act entertained, I had less invested in the future of these rather broad and borderline stereotypical characters than I would have liked, despite honest, intelligent dialogue, connected and lively acting, and excellent direction. But the addition of the board room (and the transition in tone that its compact and stifling quarters demand), transforms the talented Cory Finley’s play from a rather angst-driven movie-style piece that reminded me of when I saw or acted in good collegiate productions, into a play that plants seeds for Finley to one day pen his own intellectual powerhouse. Heavy antecedents of Glengarry Glen Ross notwithstanding, the second act adeptly aimed and fired such a barrage of articulate and legitimately philosophical, probing dialogue at me that I nearly took cover.
The acting, by all parties, is stellar. It would be remiss of me not to mention that George Drance, Willa Fitzgerald, David Jackson, Brendan McDonough, and Brandon Zelman are the best kind of talking-and-listening ensemble, and have one another’s rhythms down without anticipating revelations. Charlie Polinger’s direction, especially in the second act, is inventive and minimal all at once, utilizing John McDermott’s clever sets, Daisy Long’s lighting, India Teal’s costumes and Daniel Kluger’s sound design (all wonderful) to their fullest and most theatrically satisfying potential. The script forges many discussions on many fronts; everything from ethics to sex (including the ethics of sex), women in the workplace, feminism, homosexuality, sexism, and sexual harassment, all the way to marijuana, is covered. But unlike many scripts that become metaphorically greedy, Finley's manages to strike the fine balance that Mamet so often successfully achieves by grounding cerebral discussion in human need, which seemed to strike in the audience the appropriate chord of empathy. We did care.
A few speeches might be left out here and there—in particular, a speech about love, given in a men’s room, displays a writer’s gift for words, but slows the action; and trust us, Mr. Finley, there was no doubt by that point that you have a gift for words. The final moment is everything it ought to be, and the “resolution,” to my taste, is just right. My only qualm with the piece, aside from the entertaining but unchallenging first act, was the fact that Polinger directed in a second curtain call: it’s a good play, you don’t have to demand or beg for our approval. But the mistake is minor, and the piece’s merits are not. This isn’t “the play” for Finley, but aside from George Drance (old by no means but not college-age), these are all relatively young people who will go on to do excellent theatre. And after walking out of The Private Sector’s second act, I have high hopes for Cory Finley and all involved.