Corporate America — a phrase that can serve both chills and pride at the thought of the faceless conglomerates that sit behind some of our mighty industries. It’s a credit to the machinery of business that apart from some specialized roles, most jobs and job functions are almost indistinguishable from one another. The desk-chained masses can be slotted in and out at will like figures in a giant Lego set. Company machinations in the news, the comedy of The Office, the universal “uh-huh” when reading a Dilbert cartoon (though Scott Adams should best never be let near a keyboard again) make the setting for Chris Shuptrine’s new play highly relatable to the vast majority of us.
Numbers are Down, is a satire set in a failing department of fictional company Abacus. The play was selected from nearly 50 submissions by North Carolina playwrights in response to RedBird Theater’s call for scripts last fall. The straightforward plot follows the fortunes of five office-workers as they battle low pay, workplace incompetence, a shortage of coffee cups and a constant barrage of corporate jargon. Central to the story are Andy and Max (played by stage debutants Jeffrey Eason and Monica Hoh) two stalwarts in a recently downsized department of three, who become subject to the vagaries of office politics and attempt to discover who they really need to become in order to survive the environment,
This cast had clearly rehearsed until their staplers bled. The chemistry between the two protagonists was *chef’s kiss* superb. The speed of the line delivery and pacing had the effect of immersing the audience into the world of office banter. Pamir Kiciman, as department head Frank, displayed a wonderful range from the jocular to the panicked. Eason and Hoh similarly had great depth to their work on stage, bouncing between coworker contempt and eye-watering outrage. Supporting them Donna J. Smith and Nicole Gabriel (playing Lucy and Cassie respectively) provided slick support for the main characters.
Full marks and credit go to the performers and director Daviid Berberian for delivering a finely honed product to the stage. The only criticism here is that the staging was occasionally difficult; being in the thrust and having backs to half the audience for minutes at a time. This had the inadvertent effect of breaking the “sitcom style” setup of the stage (complete with LAUGH/APPLAUSE signs hanging above). This however did not detract from the razor sharp interactions between the characters and speed of the repartee that such a play demands. In a scene preceding the departure of an individual from the department, the timing of the lines and entrances provides one of the more hilarious moments in the show.
RedBird Theater managed to set a very high bar for themselves in their first season. The productions of A Doll’s House Part 2 and Red wowed audiences in their sheer drama, simplicity, preparation, and outstanding talent. These productions were finely tuned and not only brought out the best in the talent but nurtured that talent even further. In terms of the performance of this production, they have definitely reached that lofty benchmark and produced a work that is thoroughly professional and entertaining.
Chris Shuptrine’s script, however, was like watching a 75-minute slow motion video of a collision between The Office and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Like all train wrecks, it starts off fascinating enough. Then shards of broken plot and messaging pierce your gaze and you realize you’re looking at carnage that, once seen, cannot be undone. The premise of the play is solid: highly talented women of color can be overlooked in the workplace. However, in providing this story, once again a writer has leaned into a redemption arc for the white man. It’s as if Shuptrine is trying to tell us by the end: no matter how much you steamroller your highly skilled marginalized coworker, they will always forgive you. So it’s OK to continue being who you are.
The humor in the play, while expertly delivered, simmers along without ever reaching boiling point. There are a couple of deft running gags with an office door and a sitcom-style “stage manager,” however, there is so much more office humor that could be incorporated into a tale such as this. And perhaps that humor might pull into sharp relief the true conflict between policies and systems which enhance racism and sexism in the workplace rather than asking us to feel good about the journey of self discovery of yet another privileged person.
Audiences should see this production; please go and make up your own mind. One should always, regardless of whether a review raves or is highly critical. Definitely go for the wonderful performances. However if like this reviewer you walk away feeling that you needed something else, the question has to be asked: was this really the best of nearly 50 new play submissions to RedBird?
Numbers are Down runs through August 5. For more information visit https://www.redbirdtheatercompany.com/.
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