The show: "The Consultant" at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre
What makes it special?: World premiere of a play by Heidi Schreck
First impression?: A corporate office play set at the height of The Great Recession in 2009 is a ripe source of material. Schreck, director Kip Fagan and the cast tap into the anxiety and gestalt of the times quite nicely. But the playwright, while clearly talented with a knack for bright dialogue, seems as overwhelmed as some of her unmoored characters.
There's a multitude of themes, ideas and mood swings on stage in this sometimes entertaining, often muddled comedy-drama set in a down-sized office of a pharmaceutical advertising agency. But things don't come together in any effective or dramatically satisfying way within the swiftly paced 90-minute play. The work seems more suitable for a pitch for a pilot on HBO, with the many blanks to be filled in in future weeks.
What's it about?: Workers are dropping like flies during a lay-off purge at a big-deal company during tough times, making folks there take stock of their careers, lives and identities. A designer's head is on the block unless he makes a great presentation to a much-needed client. Amelia (Clare Barron), a straight-out-of-college consultant —- who is more like a presentation coach really —- is brought in to help the troubled and depressed designer who is having problems at home, too.
Meanwhile, the wiz-bang multi-tasking receptionist Tania (Cassie Beck) and her maybe-boyfriend Mark (Darren Goldstein), an alpha male co-worker, are having life and work issues of their own.
How does the presentation go? Who stays and who goes?: These are the dandy narrative plot points that propel the play, even when you feel it's just idling, or spinning its wheels in trivial detail.
But what Schreck and this production do well is tap into the paranoia, the faux bravado and the gallows humor of being in a corporate situation where you discover that job security is an illusion and rules are being rewritten in secret codes.
"It feels like everyone knows something and they're just not telling me," says the under-the-gun designer Jun Suk (Nelson Lee).
"That sounds like a terrible feeling," flatly says Tania, the know-all receptionist. "But I don't know anything."
Does she? Or doesn't she? The question is does Schreck? At a certain point after a solid beginning you feel the play starts to drift away in a variety of different directions, even as you stay engaged with the characters and the fundamental plot.
When Barbara (Lynne McCoullough), a former employee returns (we're not sure why), she shows off her in-your-face self-help mantra to Amelia but the effect is disorienting rather than illuminating. This is compounded by the fact that Amelia, arguably the lead character, is unfocused and seemingly helpless in this not- so-brave-new-corporate-world.
When expectations are upended at the lay's conclusion, there's a kind of zen like resolution that's achieved —- but it feels wholly unearned.
Anything else?: The play feels underpopulated, too. We know that there's lay-offs aplenty going on but after a further wave of cuts, you wonder if anyone is left.
Who will like it?: Those longing for a play —- any play —- that deals with one of the more dramatic socio-economic corporate events of this new century. Fans of "The Office," maybe. Dilbert.
Who won't?: Those wanting that play to be a profound but clearheaded experience.
For the kids?: Only of they look forward to bring-your-kids-to-corporate-work-day
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: To summerize: Work is hell. What's the point? Wake up!
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: It's always a pleasure to be knocked out by one in particular actor in a great role. Cassie Beck's Tania is the receptionist you don't want to mess with (or maybe you do). She's smart, funny, knowing and has killer comic instincts. Beck nails the intelligence, insecurities, humor and sexiness of this unforgettable character.
The basics: The show runs through Feb. 9 at Stage II at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $40 to $70. Information: 203-787-4282 and www.longwharf.org.