Have you ever felt like you were destined for greater things than the annual pig price report? In Kate Fodor’s deceptively lighthearted romantic comedy “Rx,” a frustrated writer has traded her MFA in poetry for a job as the managing editor of American Cattle and Swine Magazine, a desk from which she creeps daily to the old lady underpants section of a neighboring department store to weep bitter tears of frustration and humiliation.
I mean, who hasn’t? That feeling of restlessness and self-loathing that accessorizes an underwhelming job has fueled infinite modern workplace comedies, from “Clerks” to eight seasons of “The Office.” But Fodor’s play also interrogates, with both wit and heart, the assumption that unhappiness is always counterproductive and that pharmaceutical solutions are the best treatment for the symptoms of our discontent.
Directed by Tad Chitwood, The Bard’s Town Theatre’s production of “Rx” opened last week in the theater upstairs from the restaurant (1801 Bardstown Rd.). There are two performances left, tonight and Saturday night. Chitwood’s production is upbeat and sprightly, with just enough weird angles to keep the comedy fresh and off-kilter.
“Rx” is another fine example of The Bard’s Town Theatre’s growing commitment to staging newer works by buzz-worthy playwrights (Samuel D. Hunter, Patricia Milton, Jonathan Marc Sherman). Fodor is a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow in playwriting and a New Dramatists resident. Her drama “Hannah and Martin” won a Jefferson Award (Chicago) citation, the Kennedy Center’s Roger L. Stevens Award and was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn prize. “Rx” made its world premiere off-Broadway at Primary Stages last year, and will open in Los Angeles in January.
The show opens in the office of managing editor Meena (Beth Tantanella) being quizzed on her levels of workplace happiness by Schmitt Pharmaceuticals physician Phil (Brian Hinds), who is evaluating Meena’s suitability to participate in a clinical trial for a new drug that promises to alleviate workplace depression. His perfunctory “scale of one to ten” questioning and her off-the-charts emotional flailing set up a comic dynamic that grows more complex and strange as the drug trial progresses and their burgeoning attraction grows.
Through their relationship, Phil finds a portal into his own latent artistic impulses, while Meena sees her whole outlook shift thanks to romance and an unexpected friendship with a woman who seizes the day late in life. When the drug trial is threatened, both Meena and Phil make drastic decisions that undermine the progress both have made toward a better life. Hinds and Tantanella turn in hilarious and touching performances, keeping Phil and Meena likeable and sympathetic even through some questionable choices.
Supporting cast performances are a bit uneven. Laurene Scalf is a sweet and steadying presence as Frances, an older woman who befriends Meena, and Michael Roberts is delightfully daffy as an eager ad rep and an absent-minded research scientist. But Susan Linville plays pharmaceutical executive Allison in a one-dimensional, overly-loud note, and as Meena’s co-worker Simon, Andrew Epstein deadpans his role too far down in most of his scenes.
Acting and writing have, so far, been the cornerstones of The Bard’s Town Theatre’s programming, and of course they are essential. But now it would be a natural next step to make design a larger focus of their work. Production values don’t have to rival Broadway’s to make a big impact on a house as small as theirs, and a cohort of creative and inspired resident scenic, costume, lighting and sound designers could really elevate the ensemble’s work to the next level, especially with the smart and resourceful DIY ethic at work in the building.