Geneva Anderson digs into art

review–Magic Theatre’s “What We’re Up Against” a female architect’s first job has her navigating male jerks, air ducts and the profession itself–through March 6, 2011

Is sexism still alive in corporate America, or do most people believe that women have made it and if they aren’t experiencing success, it’s more about them and their lack of abilities? Acclaimed playwright Theresa Rebeck, tackles sexism and the rough and tumble world of office politics in What We’re Up Against, her clever new play in its world premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre through March 6, 2011.

When a team of old-school architects is under the gun to design a mall expansion but can’t figure out the design for the air ducts, all hell breaks out when Eliza (Sarah Nealis), a brash new associate they can’t stand, has the answer.  Instead of calling Eliza in to discuss her ideas, they bad-mouth her and plot to sabotage her.  After six months of slaving away and getting no notice at all for her considerable effort, Eliza concludes that she does not walk the same halls of power as the others do and gets angry.  When she asserts herself over her plan for the mall expansion, she rocks the firm to its core.  What’s going on?  Is Eliza being discriminated against because she’s female and her talent is threatening or it is more her brash style and refusal to adapt to the firm’s corporate culture and pace that is causing the problem?   

Rebeck’s “Mauritious” endeared Magic audiences in 2009 and “What We’re Up Against” is based on a eight minute scene that Rebeck wrote a few years ago that unfolds quickly through a series of charged conversations amongst colleagues that can be stacked up in numerous ways.  For Rebeck, context is key.  Because the audience enters the drama at its apex, there is no real basis for evaluating the truth of the claims that are made but that won’t stop us from speculating about what’s really going on in this office.  The play is wonderfully staged by Artistic Director Loretta Greco, who has managed to re-create a sleek office environment with a few rotating props.

Sara Nealis plays Eliza in the Magic Theatre’s world premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s “What We’re Up Against.” Eliza talks to her superior Ben about her frustrations about being systematically ignored by Stu and everyone else. Why is Weber given work when he has only been at the firm for six months--while she is given nothing. Photo: Magic Theatre.

The first act begins with deceit and builds on male disregard for Eliza.  Stu (Warren David Keith), the project’s lead architect, is angry that he’s been duped by Eliza into thinking that her design for the ducts, the logjam in the mall design project, was done by a man instead of “this cunt.”  Ben (Rod Gnapp), also a senior architect, doesn’t seem to like women either but recognizes that if Eliza has solved the problem, the project can move forward.  Be forwarned, the play opens with obscenities and doesn’t let up.

Eliza will be familiar to most of us— she’s young, blond, ambitious, outspoken, hardworking, and extremely talented—she’s likable but can be despicable too.  We’ve all met her, actually most of these characters, at some point in our professional lives.

Eliza’s interaction with her associate colleagues, Janice (Pamela Gaye Walker) and Weber (James Wagner), is what makes this play worth the price of admission.  In this firm, ideas are translated and added to by coworkers, especially the slaving associates, while the principals, Stu and Ben, take on the alternating roles of creator and critic.   Being a good designer is everything but the criteria for “good design” is highly subjective.  

Everyone works to support the star, the designer at the top of the pyramid, who Stu and Ben are directly responsible to.  The system itself is authoritarian and outdated.  Sexism may define Eliza as a scribe to the males in this office but the system itself defines everyone but the star as second banana.  It works like a caste system with obtuse rewards and harsh punishments.  Everyone wants attribution and recognition but it’s hard to determine who is contributing what.   A few minutes into the play, you ntoice that no one seems fulfillfed.

Pamela Gay Walker (left) plays Janice , and Sara Nealis (right) plays Eliza in the Magic Theatre’s world premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s “What We’re Up Against.” Eliza talks to Janice about being given an office the size of a broom closet at the end of a hallway. Photo: Magic Theatre.

Janice, a more senior associate, has thrown in the towel long ago, accepts her lesser position in the firm, and goes along with the boys.  In this dog-eat-dog setting, she has lost her fight, her confidence and resents Eliza’s drive and her bluntness.  Weber is the young male pup in the group.  Since the firm is ruled by a male-pack mentality, he’s protected and given chances to excel despite his lack of talent.   Stu and Ben are themselves under the thumb of the firm’s jet-setting guru, who they slave away for.  

Rebeck takes the topic of sexism and complicates it with strong personalities and an ambiguous context for evaluating professional success.  “What We’re Up Against” stands as a fascinating portrait of the human condition and a very unappealing firm. 

Run-time:  One hour and 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

Median Income for men in architecture: $70,330

Median Income for women in architecture: $55,805

In architecture, women earn 70% of what men earn.

Up Next at Magic Theatre:  Playwright and burlesque performer Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge, winner of a 2010 Obie Award, opens April 21, 2011 at the Magic Theatre and runs through May 22, 2011.  When a flower falls in love with a blushing bride, can he complete a quest to become a man and win her love?  Taylor Mac and dozens of Bay Area artists tackle love, marriage and Prop 8, using vaudeville, haiku, drag queens, ukuleles, dream ballets and everything else in Mac’s theatrical arsenal. The Lily’s Revenge is a rolling world premiere with Magic Theatre, HERE Arts Center (New York), Southern Rep Theatre (New Orleans) and The National Theatre of Scotland.

Details: Magic Theatre is located on the third floor of Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, at the intersection of Marina Blvd. and Buchanan Street.  Parking: Low cost parking is located just inside the gates of Fort Mason Center (entrance at the intersection of Buchanan Street and Marina Boulevard) and free parking is located just outside the entrance to Fort Mason Center, a short walk from the theatre.   Tickets: $20 to $60.  Box office (415) 441-8822 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting or     Seating: Audience members sit in three sections—2 side sections and a center section, and production are designed so that each vantage point provides a different experience.

February 19, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment