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Review: ‘What We’re Up Against’ at WP Theater

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Office politics, gender-based inequality in the workplace, and self-damning outbursts of flagrant misogyny fuel the flames of Theresa Rebeck’s razor-sharp feminist comedy What We’re Up Against, making its Off-Broadway premiere at WP Theater by special arrangement with Segal NYC Productions. Written and set in 1992, Rebeck’s acerbic observations of sexist attitudes and on-the-job discrimination remain on-the-money now, a quarter-century later, with the current daily firestorm of long-overdue revelations of the widespread sexual harassment of women in the entertainment industry and the shocking economic statistics that, in 2017, women still only make an estimated 79¢ on the dollar of what men are paid.

Directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt with a fluid pace, engaging blocking, and a fine eye for social satire, the plot follows the interactions of five members of a small architectural firm faced with the dilemma of where to place the air ducts in their commissioned plans to remodel a shopping mall. That seemingly mundane issue triggers an explosive situation and a hilarious power-play that pits men against women, and woman against woman, in their jockeying for position on the corporate ladder and their drive to maintain the status quo – or to eradicate long-held traditions of male domination and bias – in a dysfunctional environment where playing the game or playing games trumps being the most talented and doing the best job, and the least likely person makes the titular complaint.

Damian Young, Marg Helgenberger, Skylar Astin, Krysta Rodriguez, and Jim Parrack, Photo by Joan Marcus.

Damian Young, Marg Helgenberger, Skylar Astin, Krysta Rodriguez, and Jim Parrack. Photo by Joan Marcus.

A top-notch cast of favorites from the stage, screen, and TV delivers Rebeck’s sardonic laughs with gusto, defining the all-too-familiar professional types and fully embracing their over-the-top behavior, childish emotional tirades, questionable business ethics, and institutionalized discrimination, in well-crafted comic portrayals that are not so exaggerated as to be unrecognizable. If you don’t know anyone like them, or can’t relate to any of them, you’ve been unbelievably fortunate (emphasis on unbelievable).

Damian Young is Stu, the boss who has a problem with alcohol and an even bigger problem with women. He rails against them wanting to change “the way things are” and having “no respect for the system,” demeans their good work and denies them advancement in the firm, describes them with vitriolic epithets and vows that “they’re not going to win,” demands total obedience and support from his team, then fears a discrimination lawsuit so resorts to obvious tokenism. He is the epitome of outdated policies, drunken volatility, and male chauvinism to its extreme, and Young plays him with risibly hateful relish.

The primary target of Stu’s contempt and machinations is Eliza, a recent young hire who has an in with the firm’s unseen head honcho David and is “eight times smarter” than her fellow architects, who just wants to work but is bypassed in favor of the less-competent men. Krysta Rodriguez portrays her with fire, acuity, and righteous indignation, as she tries everything she can to get her fair share of the projects, ultimately resorting to schemes designed to trick her colleagues into recognizing her real talent and giving them their well-deserved comeuppance.

Eliza’s main competitor is Weber, a “golden boy with ‘architalk’” who spends more time drinking with Stu and spontaneously babbling about his abstract views on the meaning of architecture than he does on getting the job done (Rebeck creates a telling contrast between Weber and Eliza in their soliloquies on how architecture defines American values: for him, it’s the glory of shopping in a mall; for her, it’s justice and equality for all, embodied in a Neoclassical-style courthouse). Though hired a month after Eliza and not nearly as competent, he gets more respect and has been given more assignments and a better office than she has. Weber’s infuriating sense of entitlement, slimy sycophancy, and juvenile taunting are captured to a tee by the excellent Skylar Astin.

Marg Helgenberger and Krysta Rodriguez. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Marg Helgenberger and Krysta Rodriguez. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Rounding out the fine ensemble are Jim Parrack as the pragmatic Ben, who appears to go with Stu’s prejudicial program, while trying desperately to get his teammates to focus on the project at hand and the priority of problem-solving; and Marg Helgenberger as Janice, the other woman in the firm – considered a “team player” by the men and “a Nazi collaborator” by Eliza – who kowtows to male authority and advises Eliza to do the same, forcing a climactic and thought-provoking confrontation between them.

Costumes by Tilly Grimes visually reinforce the characters’ unmistakable personalities (Eliza wears stylish contemporary clothing while Janice bends to tradition with her brown and plaid attire) and a bi-level set design by Narelle Sissons asserts the company’s pecking order (with Stu’s sleek office on the upper level and Janice’s cluttered workspace and Eliza’s tiny room down below).

What We’re Up Against provides the perfect fare for WP Theater and its mission of female empowerment, gender parity, and fostering the work of female-identifying artists, in an entertaining and sorely-relevant production that makes us laugh, even as we shake our heads, roll our eyes, and grit our teeth at the outdated paradigms and practices that still sadly prevail in our present-day culture. We can only hope that in another 25 years Rebeck’s biting work will attain the status of a funny period-piece about past (not ongoing) inequities.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 35 minutes, including an intermission.

What We’re Up Against plays through Sunday, December 3, 2017, at WP Theater at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre – 2162 Broadway, 4th floor, NYC. For tickets, call the box office at (212) 765-1706, or purchase them online.

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