Heidi Schreck

On the Job

Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant is a thoughtful comedy, a consideration of the kinds of relationships that form in the workplace. In a world where “job security” is a great desiderata, one would expect that meaningful relationships at work would also be desired. Such seems to be not always the case, and that leaves room for a play like Schreck’s, a way of investigating the interplay of personality and opportunity on the job. That’s not to say that The Consultant is a job-based play, as in an exposé of a certain profession. The main players at Sutton, Feingold, and McGrath—such as the boss Harold—are never portrayed. We’re viewing the middle management level but we spend most of our time in the reception area where Tania (Cassie Beck), an NYU grad with a Comp Lit degree, mans the ship, sorta. Tania’s not very good at her job and from that follows much of what happens here. One of the subtle aspects of the play is that it shows us people who, in being themselves, aren’t quite what their job descriptions require. This isn’t a play about the dehumanization that takes place in the workplace but rather about the human situations that fleetingly come and go while the world of work churns on. Sometimes, indeed, work seems to be an inconvenience even while on the job.

SFM is a pharmaceutical ad agency. A business that we might imagine to be fairly flush, as such things go, but even such a major contributor to our collective well-being is feeling the pinch in the “global downturn” of 2009, which is to say that no one we meet feels quite so secure as they might otherwise. In particular, Jun Suk (Nelson Lee), who has taken on the clients of the recently departed Barbara (Lynne McCullough), is having problems. He’s a capable designer but not a capable presenter of his ideas. Enter Amelia (Clare Barron), hired to be “the consultant” who will help him get his act together. Amelia, a student at NYU, is more or less moonlighting here, as her real expertise is ESL tutoring. No matter, Jun Suk is desperate for a helping hand and, while not enthusiastic about her or her coaching, lets it continue, largely because of the earnest efforts of Mark (Darren Goldstein), a manager, to get him some help. Jun Suk doesn’t suffer fools gladly and that’s the sort of thing that can sour your audience in a corporate presentation.

As Amelia, Clare Barron is perfect. She has a girlish earnestness that flirts with cluelessness but comes off as authenticity. Amelia’s not really faking anything and that in itself seems a breath of fresh air in this environment. Barron has a knack for non-reaction reactions that does a lot for her role as witness more than catalyst—though in one key scene she unwittingly helps to bring down the “friends” she has tried to make here, particularly Tania and Mark. Such unwittingness is what keeps this play interesting. Rather than watching for “agendas,” we’re watching how people undermine themselves and others even when trying to be helpful.

As Jun Suk, Nelson Lee has the role with the most leverage, so to speak. Do we warm to him or not? He’s a prickly guy and yet, because he seems the most put-upon, we tend to hope he’ll be ok. This isn’t the kind of play where romance bells are going to sound for Jun Suk and his consultant, so the suspense is in whether or not Amelia’s work with him pays off. Romance might be happening between Tania and Mark, but on the other hand, it could just be a shack-up with consequences, or not.

Schreck’s dialogue has an ear for natural wit, the kind of comebacks that occur normally. It’s not sit-com humor and, as directed by Kip Fagan, everyone is sorta likeable, but also at times questionable. It’s a lot like life in that way. When Amelia, filling in for Tania, meets the formidable Barbara, we get a whiff of life outside the ad agency—Barbara seems to have become some kind of self-help guru and Amelia might be a likely candidate for her teachings. The situations in The Consultant suggest a world where no one is happy with their jobs and everyone is worried about keeping them anyway. Schreck wants to suggest the possibilities that come when things crash.

From that point of view, the play ends on a positive note, as the last scene takes place outside SFM with perhaps the beginnings of a bond between Amelia and Tania, to convey the “family” of co-workers. But the scene that struck me most between the two was when Tania—stressed out at losing her job and losing Mark’s attentions—gives Amelia, who is feeling newly empowered à la Barbara, the cold-shoulder, though Amelia clearly wants to be friends. It’s a moment where all the good will in the world doesn’t work if someone—in this case Tania—won’t let you in. True, that’s part of family and friendships too, not just workplace bonhomie, but it spoke volumes about the difficulty of relationships that take place only “on stage”—on the job.

As a staged space, Andrew Boyce’s set design and Matt Frey’s lighting are very realistic, so much so that when Amelia and Jun Suk go into the conference room we overhear them through miked pick-ups. This has the effect of putting distance between the common space of the reception area and the inner sanctum of the conference room, which made the interactions in the latter seem more forced—it was easy to understand why no one would want to stay in there. Outside, in Tania’s space, is where all the meaningful slippages occur, including the after effects of hard partying by Mark and Jun Suk.

The Consultant has the feel of “a couple months in the life”—just time enough to see everyone’s fortunes change without being able to say for certain “what next.” We begin and end in medias res. Will our jobs still be here tomorrow? Will our relationships? Will we? Heidi Schreck’s play asks us to think about the implications of those questions and the answers that matter.

 

The Consultant By Heidi Schreck Directed by Kip Fagen

Set Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Jessica Pabst; Lighting Design: Matt Frey; Composer & Sound Design: Daniel Kluger; Production Stage Manager: Sunneva Stapleton; Casting: Calleri Casting

The Long Wharf Theatre January 8-February 9, 2013

Theater News

This week the Long Wharf’s world premiere of Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant opens officially on Wednesday, January 15. See our preview here. This week as well the Yale Cabaret resumes its 46th season with Have I None, a daunting play by British playwright Edward Bond from 2000. Set in 2077, the play darkly imagines a dystopia in which memory, and therefore history, has been erased. Jessica Holt, 2nd-year YSD director and Artistic Director for the Yale Summer Cabaret, 2014, will stage the claustrophobic play with stress on Bond's sense of the absurd. January 16-18.

Next week, on January 23, from 5:30 to 8:30, celebrated local theater troupe A Broken Umbrella Theatre will host a fundraiser at the Eli Whitney Museum and unveil details about their latest venture. As usual, the project is an original play based on historical figures, facts, and locales of New Haven. If You Build It, the new play, focuses on inventor A. C. Gilbert to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his most famous creation: the Erector Set. Director Ruben Ortiz, playwright Charlie Alexander, and cast members will present an excerpt of the work in progress.

The build up of the production will be complemented by an evening of treats and toys: Small Kitchen Big Taste will be serving “architectural food,” including slider and mashed potato stations to build-your-own-cupcakes, Thimble Island Brewery will feature locally crafted beers, and ABU's Chrissy Gardner and the Moody Food Trio will provide musical accompaniment. Guests are invited to try their hand at the engineering feat of Erector Set construction along with ABU’s crew of welders, carpenters and electricians.

A Broken Umbrella Theatre has presented site specific works in New Haven for the last five years and enjoyed perhaps their greatest triumph at last year’s Arts and Ideas Festival with Freewheelers. Come out, sneak a peak at their next production, become a patron, and have fun.

For more information, please visit www.abrokenumbrella.org, or contact Rachel Alderman at: 203.823.7988 or rachel@abrokenumbrella.org

Next week as well will see the 10th show of the season at the Yale Cabaret: 3rd-year YSD actress Elia Monte-Brown’s original play, The Defendant, about the rigors of public school in New York (where Monte-Brown taught); the play aims to recreate some of the anxieties of today’s student, and to question the values of public education in America, using all 1st year actors in the YSD program. January 23-25.

And on the last week of the month, January 31st, previews begin for the Yale Repertory Theatre’s next production: The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, a world premiere from Whiting-Award winning playwright, and recent YSD graduate, Meg Miroshnik. Miroshnik's play, directed by two-time OBIE-Award-winning director Rachel Chavkin, who previously directed an Off-Broadway production of the celebrated musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, is set in 2005 as a twenty-year-old girl named Annie returns to her native Russia. Underneath the glamor of a Post-Soviet Moscow bedecked with high ticket consumer goods, Annie discovers a land of enchantment straight out of a fairytale, with evil stepmothers, wicked witches, and ravenous bears.

The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls opens officially on February 7, and runs til February 22.

Consulting Heidi Schreck

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

Long Wharf's New Season Launched

Of course, the big news today is that we have a functioning federal government again . . . sorta, and government workers are returning to work. Whether your inclination is to cheer, jeer, or sneer at our political leadership, here’s news of another happy return taking place today: the Long Wharf Theatre is back. The first show of the new season, Steve Martin’s The Underpants, begins previews tonight, and opens next Wednesday. Derived from a German play of the Expressionist era by Carl Sternheim, Martin’s play is a irreverent farce about marriage, fidelity, temptation . . . and undergarments. When a young woman’s knickers drop to her ankles while she’s out in public—to watch the King on parade—she becomes a major provocation to young men on the prowl. Would-be suitors move into a room for rent in the house where Louise lives with her stuffy husband who is squeamish about sex—because children cost money!—and not at all ready to find himself married to “a sensation.” Directed by Gordon Edelstein, the play’s skewering of dull conformity in the name of racier considerations should make for a lively evening, and Martin’s sense of comic timing is legendary. October 16-November 10.

 

Next up is a Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson: Fences, a play that won a Tony for its two lead roles both in its original production in 1987 and in its first Broadway revival in 2010, as well as Tony for Best Play (1987) and Best Revival (2010). Set in the 1950s, the story concerns Troy Maxson, a man who drives a garbage truck but who at one time was a baseball sensation in the Negro Leagues. Set in the time when the color barrier was being broached by black athletes, the play is a character study of a working-class black man struggling with his place in life—which includes a brother with a war injury, two sons, one from a previous marriage, the other from his current marriage to Rose, and a pregnant girlfriend. The Long Wharf’s revival will be directed by Phylicia Rashād, famous since the 1980s for her role as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, and a Tony-Award-winning Actress in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun in 2004. November 27-December 22

The first play of the new year is the World Premiere of Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant, a workplace comedy set at the firm of Sutton, Feingold and McGrath, a pharmaceutical advertising company, where downsizing and getting ahead fuel anxieties, and office romance plays its part in the complex sense of “work” in our era of constant Bluetooth and Smartphone access. Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein calls the play “irreverent, a little kooky and very humane.” January 8-February 9, 2014

Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting helms celebrated newer playwright Amy Herzog’s touching family drama 4000 Miles, about the rapport between a twenty-one-year-old and his ninety-one-year-old grandmother, living together in Greenwich Village after Leo bikes across the continent from California. It’s an opportunity for the clash and the coming-to-terms of generations in this highly praised play called both “funny” and “moving” by The New York TimesFebruary 19-March 16

Tony Award-winning South African playwright Athol Fugard has not acted on stage since 1997. It’s exciting news to hear that he will be acting the main role in his new play The Shadow of the Hummingbird in its World Premiere, directed by Gordon Edelstein. Fugard plays a grandfather who unexpectedly plays host to his ten-year-old grandson, truant from school for the day. Following 4000 Miles at Long Wharf, we can say that the interplay between elders and juniors is a big theme in the second half of the 2013-14 Season. In Edelstein’s words, Fugard’s latest is “a great work by a master about living and dying, and how to live one’s life.” Stage II, March 26-April 27.

The final show of the season is the crowd-pleasing musical The Last Five Years, Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, directed by Gordon Edelstein. Playing on Broadway just now is Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, about a marriage and an infidelity, told backwards from the end of the affair to the night it began. Brown’s musical does something similar: Cathy, an actress, tells the story of her marriage to Jamie, a writer, from its end to its beginning; Jaimie tells of his relationship to Cathy from its romantic inception to its collapse. In the center of the play there is a shared song on the night they agree to marry. Using a clever device to explore the “his” and “hers” of stories about relationships, the play is poignant and engaging, with songs of wit and romance. May 7-June 1.

It would seem the Long Wharf has put together another winning season of new work, important revivals, and welcome encores of recent crowd-pleasing theater.  Over 30 Long Wharf productions have transferred to Broadway or Off-Broadway, most recently the highly acclaimed My Name is Asher Lev and the fascinating musical February House.

 

Plays are staged at the Claire Tow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck III Theatre, unless otherwise stated.

The Long Wharf Theatre Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director; Joshua Bernstein, Managing Director

222 Sargent Drive New Haven, CT

203.787.4282 www.longwharf.org