A Contemporary Theatre'ês production (through June 21) of Below the Belt fits perfectly for our times, stirs the mind with fine acting, and thus serves the mission of the company and its founder, Gregory A. Falls.
Below the Belt by playwright Richard Dresser is about three employees of a factory located far out in the desert, adjoining a polluted river. The play is an unsettling look at the effects on our values and identity of work in contemporary life. Nothing could be more well timed as we watch Microsoft and Boeing shed jobs and a totem of our region'ês economy, Washington Mutual, go poof.
The play is meant to be a grim comedy about white-collar workers who share a sense of approaching danger and whose precise jobs are never quite specified. A little is disclosed but much more leaves the audience guessing, an added source of dramatic tension. Two are 'êcheckers'ê (played superbly by R. Hamilton Wright and Judd Hirsch), who assess the quality done on the factory floor. The third is their manager (played nicely by John Procaccino), whose own sense of worth comes from cruelty to his subordinates. All three jockey for security or for what passes for advancement in a unnamed company. All we know is the factory has a gigantic order to fill in little time, and everyone'ês at risk if the goal is not reached. Of the 21,568 units of whatever made each day at the factory, some will be flawed and must be rejected by the checkers.
The production is paced and shaped perfectly by director Pam MacKinnon, with a set by Matthew Smucker. The play opens with Hanrahan (Hirsch, who played the same role on Broadway in 1996) typing up a report, one letter at a time because he can'êt readily find the keys. We soon learn this is just one of many sources of frustrations and bitterness in Hanrahan'ês life. Hirsch, known for his prolific work in TV ('êTaxi'ê) and movies ('êOrdinary People,'ê 'êIndependence Day,'ê etc.), is pitch perfect but for one flaw. (Judd, could you raise your voice just a tad? I missed some of your lines.)
The wimpy Dobbitt has the sorry task of sharing a room with Hanrahan and trying to fit in, do his job, and eventually return to his wife, a goal that is his only comfort. Hanrahan wastes no time establishing himself as the alpha male, establishing who sleeps where and how things will go, and working into the conversation personal information he knows about Dobbitt'ês wife. Within minutes, Dobbitt'ês sense of purpose is shattered.
Wright is a master of playing wired-up, off-center characters. Here he delivers again, especially in one scene in act two, which is much stronger than the first act. Wright'ês character struggles to understand with Merkin the purpose of 'êreconsider'ê if the conclusion is preordained. If this exchange sounds prosaic, it is precisely an example of where Dresser'ês brisk writing and McKinnon'ês directing serve one another to good effect. The verbal play makes us laugh right through Dobbitt'ês humiliation. I have watched Wright and Procaccino play together so well in productions that go back to the early 1970s at The Empty Space Theater, so it was no surprise that that scene provided for me the night'ês most entertaining moment.
ACT describes Below the Belt as a cross between the TV sitcom 'êThe Office'ê and Samuel Beckett, and oddly, playwright Dresser agrees. That seems a perilous comparison because Dresser's play falls far short of full success on its own terms. Yes, this script is closer to a work by Samuel Beckett, a master of a certain absurdist form, but 'êThe Office'ê is all about goofy behavior with characters at times looking directly at the camera, in a wink wink to the audience: Isn'êt this nuts? Watch what I do next.
In Below the Belt, there is no such comic comfort for the audience. We see the work today somewhat differently than the audience of 1995, when it premiered at The Actors Theatre of Louisville'ês Humana Festival of New Plays. In 1995, the economy prospered and the characters' desperation to keep their jobs must have seemed pitiful, perhaps even remote to the audience then. Today, the idea of doing almost anything to keep a paycheck is not so easily dismissed. You'êre lucky to have a job, so our laughing at the characters doesn'êt come so easily.