From the moment the lights come up on a young woman holding a gun on an older man in an office or waiting room setting, Max Wolf Friedlich’s brilliant Job (as in “working”) is a roller coaster ride of a psychological thriller. Its completely sold out Off Broadway run is not only due to its two leads, Peter Friedman and Sydney Lemmon, stars of the hit HBO cable series Succession, but also to the fact that the play is intense, riveting, surprising, up-to-the-minute – and shocking. It may just be the best new American play in at least the last five years. Director Michael Herwitz has a good deal to do with keeping the play taut throughout.
Ostensibly about the danger of modern technology to people, it is also about the generation gap, self-identity and the power structure between men and women. What has brought Jane to this moment in the San Francisco office of crisis therapist Loyd is that she had a very public breakdown at her big (unnamed) internet tech company, an event which has gone viral. She has been put on paid leave, but she wishes desperately to return to her job running a department called “User Care” which is how she defines herself. (She seems to have no identity aside from her job.) After several months, she had been informed that if a therapist declares her well, she may return to her job. However, not only does she not trust the male therapist she has been assigned, from what we see she does not appear to be recovered in all senses of the word.
Is fear of technology a generational thing? Sixtyish therapist Loyd says he sees reliance on smart phones exacerbating people problems and he tries to keep his 13-year-old son off of the internet. He also notes that “we’ve gone from exploring our own minds to having our minds harvested for market research.” Twenty-something tech employee Jane claims that it is not the phone that is the problem but that people do bad things; 16-year-old girls use Instagram to feel prettier which she feels is a good thing. However, Loyd gets Jane to admit that her panic attacks began when she started her job two years ago. When we hear a description of her job policing the internet, it is not surprising that she has flipped out. What she has witnessed is pretty shocking; however, her recent public panic attack she attributes to an old boyfriend who recently resurfaced.
The play begins with alternate versions of the first scene which we eventually realize are all in Jane’s mind. Halfway through the play, Jessie Char and Maxwell Neely-Cohen’s sound design begins to offer interruptions that are also most likely in Jane’ mind, things she has witnessed or is feeling. The play ends ambiguously leaving the actual denouement up to the audience. Does Loyd clear Jane to be reinstated to her job? You will have to witness the play to decide for yourself.
One quibble with this excellent: towards the end of their encounter, there is an incredible coincidence which may, of course, be entirely in Jane’s mind. There are uncanny coincidences in our world but this one seems to need a great suspension of disbelief. However, this is all staged so well by director Herwitz that one doesn’t have time to notice until after the final curtain. It might be made clearer whether it is Jane’s fantasy or their reality.
Friedman and Lemmon both play smart sophisticated people. Tony nominee and two-time Drama Desk Award winner Friedman’s Loyd is compassionate, ironic and shrewd. Lemmon, the talented granddaughter of Hollywood star Jack Lemmon, is wily, neurotic, intellectual, apprehensive and uptight as Jane. Both give nuanced, layered performances. Just try taking your attention away from them for a moment. Their performances are as enthralling as the play’s twists and turns, and they work as well together as if they have been a team for years.
The design elements are pitch perfect: Scott Penner’s attractive office setting in its chic earth tones with its two facing comfortable armchairs and pillows; Michelle J. Li’s casual costumes which define both characters; Mextly Couzin’s lighting design which adds to the tension as it occasional goes to sudden blackouts or turns the stage red; and Char and Neely-Cohen’s sound design which appears to put us inside of Jane’s head. So too the writing by Friedlich is such that each new line of dialogue reveals more and more of the characters, a trait a great many early playwrights have not yet learned.
Max Wolf Friedlich’s Job is as tense as a thriller, as compelling as a psychological drama and as up-to-date as tomorrow’s headlines. As directed by Michael Herwitz, Peter Friedman and Sydney Lemmon are living their roles, rather than just acting them. While the play will grab you by the throat while you are in the theater, it will give you a great deal to think about after you leave. In that it resembles other two-character plays by such authors as David Mamet and Harold Pinter. It is to be hoped that the play will be extended or better yet moved to a larger theater so that more people will be able to see it.
Job (extended through October 29, 2023)
SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, west of Sixth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.jobatsoho.co
Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission
(Note: Currently sold out for the announced run.)