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