The new year has begun, and snow and cold have come to New Haven. But have no fear: The theater season resumes this week with the world premiere of The Consultant at the Long Wharf Theatre, the third full-length play by Heidi Schreck. Long Wharf patrons who saw the production of The Old Masters in 2011 may remember Heidi Schreck as Nicky Mariano. Schreck, an Obie Award-winning actress, has divided her time between acting and playwrighting since her days acting in her own plays at the Seattle Theatre Company. That’s where she got to know Gordon Edelstein and his welcome support of her projects, so that coming to the Long Wharf with a new play is much “like coming home”; The Consultant is directed by Schreck’s husband and former colleague at the Seattle Theatre Company, Kip Fagan.
Outside of theater, Schreck has held a number of positions that have played into her work. A stint as a journalist in Russia fueled her play There Are No More Secrets, and, after moving to New York with Fagen in 2003, a job as an ESL teacher and a coach for persons making business presentations became the basis for The Consultant. In the play, Amelia finds herself with the task of helping Jun Suk, a talented but insecure designer, present his designs at a New York pharmaceuticals company. She learns he has reasons for his insecurity as no one at Sutton, Feingold, and McGrath is quite sanguine about their future. Though Schreck’s experience in the corporate world predates a bit the attrition of the Great Recession, the sense of paranoia and pressure in her play certainly resonates with our times of high unemployment and jobs that are apt to disappear at a moment’s notice.
To Schreck, Amelia “is a lot like I was,” a bit detached from the corporate world, encountering people like Tania, an office assistant “over-educated for her job,” who seems to use the job simply to make ends meet, rather than pursuing a career. As a consultant, Schreck found that a lot of people “just want to talk, and are looking for a good listener” as a way to reflect on what’s happening with them. Amelia doesn’t play therapist, but is rather “our entry into this workplace,” as we begin to grasp its dynamic, perhaps with more clarity than she does. Amelia is only “looking for an opportunity to use her skills,” but, as Schreck sees it, “disaster”—like losing a job—“can sometimes be the opening to other opportunities.”
Watching the talented cast at the Long Wharf—Schreck says everyone is “exactly right” for their parts—Schreck has come to see a struggle in the play: “who’s play is it?” There are back stories to the male parts—Jun Suk (Nelson Lee) and Mark (Darren Goldstein)—that only come out bit by bit, and a certain recklessness in the air at times, particularly for Tania (Cassie Beck). Jun Suk is going through an awful time that has nothing to do with his job, but which has impact on his performance at work. Each character’s situation changes in the course of the play, and perhaps it’s Tania who changes the most, leading us to see that Amelia (Clare Barron) may be more witness than catalyst.
Rather than look to the kind of popular office comedies that have been on TV for decades—particulary the kinds of satire found in The Office—Schreck looks to the work of María Irene Fornés, finding inspiration in her off-beat, avant-garde productions that showcase the challenges women face in male environments. Schreck says she’s not interested in the absurdity of the workplace but rather in “the strange and surprising forms of tenderness” that can arise between workers facing similar challenges. No one is really at home in the work environment of The Consultant and all are coping in different ways. Part of the challenge of coping has to do with the possibilities of “self-invention and of finding one’s true values.”
The Consultant gets much of its comedy from the loose ends and unfinished business we sense in Schreck's characters. They are people not yet completely formed, not quite willing to be only what their jobs make of them, but also not really focused on what else to do with themselves. From her first play, Creature, about the medieval memoirist Margery Kempe’s decision to become “a saint” by living a spiritual life despite her bourgeois background, to her next play about work in a soup kitchen in the Bronx, Schreck continues to explore the question of faith, including “faith in other people.” She sees all her plays as asking questions about “figuring out how to live”—both at the level of how to get by, when one’s interests might be more spiritual or creative than most day jobs expect workers to be, and at the level of how best to live up to one’s potential and to do what is best for all in the kinds of imperiled environments we all cope with.
The Consultant premieres on Wednesday, January 8, with an official opening the following Wednesday, January 15, and runs til February 9.
Long Wharf Theatre 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven
203.787.4282 or longwharf.org