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What We’re Up Against

Theresa Rebeck writes an explosive new play on gender parity and the glass ceiling which does not get the production it deserves.

Lesley McBurney and Vince Bandille in a scene from “What We’re Up Against” (Photo credit: Jimmy Mendez /mendezphotostudio.com)

Lesley McBurney and Vince Bandille in a scene from “What We’re Up Against” (Photo credit: Jimmy Mendez /mendezphotostudio.com)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Wow, is playwright Theresa Rebeck angry – and with due cause! She has poured this anger into her 2011 play What We’re Up Against now having a two-week run in New York for the first time. This exposé of gender inequality and the glass ceiling packs quite a wallop from the moment the lights come up. The play begins over the top and never lets up for a moment. It will leave you seething as it is supposed to do. The play could not be more opportune as next month we get to vote for a woman for president for the first time in our country’s 226 year history.

Eliza Newsom, a very talented architect, has worked at a top-notch firm for five months. However, as she is not part of the old boys’ network, she has been given a tiny office at the end of the corridor and no work to do. She has had enough of this treatment. When the play begins, her boss Stu who has an alcohol problem is ranting to Ben, his top architect, that Eliza tricked him by bringing him a blueprint with a solution to the duct problem in a mall renovation which is stumping the team on which she had put the name of a male architect and which he has praised.

In fact, it is her work. Furious at being taken in, he pours out his invective on all aggressive women who don’t know their place.  “This is what we’re up against,” he rails. However, he is angriest at the fact that he can’t remember her very elegant and simple solution to the problem which no one else had been able to crack. When Eliza takes her discontentment to Janice, the only other woman architect in the office, Janice advises her to be patient and wait – just as she did – for twice as long as she had already.

Cherie Mendez, Bones Rodriguez and Ean Sheehy in a scene from “What We’re Up Against” (Photo credit: Jimmy Mendez /mendezphotostudio.com)

Cherie Mendez, Bones Rodriguez and Ean Sheehy in a scene from “What We’re Up Against” (Photo credit: Jimmy Mendez /mendezphotostudio.com)

In order not to have her file a suit of the office being a hostile environment, Stu places Janice, the only other woman in the office, on the project. This leads to Eliza asking to take over Janice’s project of a minor renovation on a law office for which she will now have no time. At Eliza’s presentation, Janice is given a chance to get back at Eliza as do all the men. Even the women don’t stick together in this poisonous atmosphere. However, Eliza is determined to have her revenge and show up the deadwood for what they are.

The play is both satiric and trenchant. The conversations of the men are laced with profanity much like David Mamet’s real estate men in Glengarry Glen Ross. Eliza is called everything in the book (arrogant, aggressive, disrespectful, impatient, a loose cannon) as well as names you can’t print in a family newspaper. Eventually it rubs off on Eliza and Janice and they are cursing as crudely as the men: if you can’t beat them at their own game, then join them. The men’s fear of the women getting ahead would be pathetic if it weren’t so typical and true. Rebeck dramatizes office politics as each member of the staff worries about his or her own skin, either with lies, evasions or manipulation, and the circle keeps widening, until Eliza beats them at their own game.

Lesley McBurney and Cherie Mendez in a scene from “What We’re Up Against” (Photo credit: Jimmy Mendez/mendezphotostudio.com)

Lesley McBurney and Cherie Mendez in a scene from “What We’re Up Against” (Photo credit: Jimmy Mendez/mendezphotostudio.com)

While the play is dynamite, as directed by Lorca Peress it has a few problems.

The characters tend to rant so that we stop listening. As the alcoholic boss, Vince Bandille swallows a great many of his words which doesn’t sound like he is drunk but that he has forgotten his lines. As the vacuous Janice, who sees Eliza as a threat, Cherie Mendez has no variety in her confrontational stance. While Bones Rodriguez’s Weber is supposed to be the golden boy who has gotten by on little or no talent, he blusters when he should be trying to convince us he knows what he is talking about. Ean Sheehy as Ben, the only architect who knows what he is doing, is bland when he should be forceful and compelling.

Lesley McBurney as the protagonist gives an authoritative and persuasive performance as a woman filled with righteous anger. However, by the time we reach the midpoint of the play we agree with Janice that Eliza has an attitude problem as she has been over the top for quite a while. Then in the last half of the play she pulls back and gives a more nuanced performance that brings Eliza back into focus. She ends up a heroine for our time.

The scenic design also causes some problems. Jennifer Varbalow’s office design with its three desks (without walls) in black and white used for the various offices and conference room is an effective battleground. However, the back wall in glass or plastic which is divided into sections makes Chris Marston’s projection/video design for Eliza’s presentation very difficult to see. However, the costumes by Lisa Renee Jordan are masterful at defining how each character sees him or herself. Joel Harrison’s original music becomes tenser as the play progresses. Jason Fok’s lighting directs attention where it needs to be.

Theresa Rebeck’s powerful play, What We’re Up Against, is unfortunately as timely as tomorrow’s headlines in a world where women still tend to get paid less for doing the same job as men in the work place. Although the Life Force Arts production ought to be better, this play from the author of Seminar, Dead Accounts, Mauritius, A View from the Dome and the Pulitzer Prize finalist Omnium Gatherium should be seen by all theatergoers interested in making things better. You will not be disappointed. Dripping with irony as well as telling it like it is, it reveals what women are up against in the corporate world and the men who make it so. And don’t think for a minute if Hillary Clinton wins the next presidential election, all the glass ceilings will suddenly shatter.

What We’re Up Against (October 21 – 29, 2016)

Life Force Arts, Inc.

June Havoc Theatre, 312 W. 36th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-352-3701 or visit http://www.ovationtix.com

For more information: http://www.whatwereupagainst.com

Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (415 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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