Corruption in the financial sector led some protestors to Occupy Wall Street, but San Francisco Bay Area-playwright Patricia Milton took her protest to the stage with “Reduction in Force,” a 2011 comedy detailing one day on the luxurious campus of Icarus Financial Services when news of a company-wide “RIF” (a euphemism for massive staff lay-offs) has spread. The Bard’s Town Theatre opened the Louisville premiere last night. Directed by Scot Atkinson and Beth Tantanella, the fast-paced farce brings a steady stream of laughs from its hardworking cast, but falls a bit short of its potential in the end.
Anita (Amy Steiger) is a loyal administrative assistant working for Gabby (Natalie Fields), a greedy, corrupt, arrogant wealth management financier determined to save her own hide (and wealth) above anything else. Anita’s college debt-ridden sons live with her in a home whose mortgage is about to balloon, and she’s taken pay cuts and freezes for the past few years as Gabby amasses an Italianate mansion trading in hurricane futures, selling junk bonds to nuns, and other morally-dubious transactions. The contrast between voracious Wall Street and desperate Main Street is deliberate and stark.
When news of the company-wide reduction in force comes down, Gabby’s not worried about her own job, but she doesn’t want to lose her mini-empire, so she hires gung-ho runner Mitch (Ben Gierhart) and immediately pits him against Anita in a competition. The winner keeps his or her job; the loser is escorted out, along with her dignity, by company security. The shenanigans begin in earnest when Anita and Mitch realize that maybe they should be fighting management, not each other.
For the most part, the jokes are built on a laugh-to-keep-from-crying platform aimed squarely at the 99 percent — staggering student loans, adjustable rate mortgages re-sold to off-shore corporations, furloughs, pay freezes, and all of the jaw-dropping recklessness and excess the actual Wall Street crisis and bailout offered. The secretaries go without pay raises while the company staffs “massage cabanas” and a bird sanctuary inside their palatial headquarters, which is surrounded by, seriously, a moat.
This is a broadly-stroked farce, entirely dependent on the inversion of power between the workers and those who profit from their labor, but there are some inspired touches. Gabby uses her sexual powers to not only for self-preservation, but as another tool to gain and retain power over her fellow financial sharks, whom she despises for their weaknesses even as she cossets her own. Fields delivers her performance with an unapologetically lusty and sardonic verve, thoroughly enjoying her role as the Cruella deVille of corporate America. Gierhart infuses desperate Mitch with a surprisingly physical wit — his dance moves are unexpected and even funnier the second time around. And Steiger’s transformation from timid secretary to empowered class warrior is admirable, if predictable in the end.
In Thursday night’s performance, the pace of the first act lagged a bit behind what was needed to propel the show forward with a farcical unstoppable force. This could be due to opening night wrinkles, and perhaps the set-ups and reactions will come faster. This show needs rapid-fire direction; the jokes are broad enough that the audience can take it. Milton’s script builds the action steadily and with enough reversals to heighten the door-slamming, hiding-behind-the-desk comic tension, but the denouement feels contrived and insufficiently triumphant.
Still, the groans of recognition rippling throughout Thursday night’s performance suggest the comedy is elastic enough to overcome these stumbles. Like the rest of the country, Louisville audiences are all-too-familiar with the language of lay-offs and unemployment, but not so traumatized that they can’t laugh along with their fellow underdogs for a night.