What We’re Up Against
by John Stoltenberg
Near the end of What We’re Up Against, Theresa Rebeck’s incisive comedy about workplace sexism—just opened in a kick-ass production at The Keegan Theatre—a question is posed by Eliza, a very talented architect whom we’ve been watching be screwed by prick power in the office:
They said it wasn’t like this anymore. Why is it still like this?
That sobering question comes after scenes full of some of the funniest, sharpest-edge scripting, directing, and acting you’re likely to see in DC. And what’s remarkable about that question is that What We’re Up Against was first produced more than two decades ago.
Judging from the anti-woman animus unleashed this election season, however, it could have been written a hot minute ago.
The play’s setting is an architecture firm. Scenic Designer Matthew Keenan in a sheer stroke of genius establishes the world of the play by making the upstage wall an architectural drawing of the firm’s floor plan, with each character’s office identified, as well as conference room, elevator, kitchen, and such. Office furniture is arrayed on stage, desks, filing cabinets, and such. Then as the play proceeds, the setting of each scene is highlighted on the back wall diagram—thus when Eliza complains of having been given an out-of-the-way “broom closet” for an office, we see precisely what she means.
In the first scene we meet Stu, a blustery lush of a boss, and a pitbull defender of the boys club, which he extols as “the system.” In dialog laced with the B word, the C word, and F bombs, Stu makes clear to his direct report Ben that new hire Eliza “doesn’t belong.” Peter Finnegan turns in a performance as Stu so witty that Rebeck’s withering treatment of the guy becomes a complete treat. Check out Finnegan’s hilarious drunken moonwalk in Act Two and you’ll see what I mean.
As Ben, Michael Innocenti must toe his boss’s line while walking a tightrope toward sympathetic identification with Eliza’s struggle for recognition and fairness. Innocenti’s performance creeps up on you, in the best way possible. It is so deftly nuanced that by the end the character as written—to whom Rebeck has given both a conscience and a male-bond-y reluctance to use it—emerges as having one of the most intriguing character arcs on stage.
Janice, the only other woman in the office, has worked there three years and counsels newbie Eliza to be patient and nonthreatening. Janice has learned to survive by sucking up, which is decidedly not Eliza’s style. The script portrays Janice as a bit of a dormat-y dim bulb next to Eliza’s independent incandescence, but Carolyn Kushner brings such canny heart to the role that we root for Janice too. And by the time the clash between Janice’s and Eliza’s contrasting characters emerges as an important focus of the play, their scene together in Act Two (in which Eliza tells Janice, “You sabotaged me in that meeting!”) is absolutely electric.
There’s a third dude in the office, Weber, one of those favored young men whose career advances faster than would any better qualified young woman’s. The role functions as sort of a joker, and Stephen Russell Murray’s effervescent performance in it—with whoops and comical gestures—is both a hoot and a pointed depiction of the character’s complicitous cluelessness.
This story of what talented women are up against in the workplace is set in motion when Eliza puts Weber’s name on a design solution she devised for an architectural challenge that had the men stumped. It has to do with ducts. “Those fucking ducts” as Stu calls them. Upon seeing Eliza’s solution with Weber’s name on it, Stu thinks it’s brilliant. Upon learning Eliza came up with it, he deems it awful. The comedy and culture crit that Rebeck drives with that plot engine is both laugh-out-loud and scathing.
Brianna LaTourneau’s commanding performance as Eliza is extraordinary. Rebeck has given the character one crack-you-up, knock-your-socks-off speech after another, and LaTourneau lands every one with drop-dead aim. I suspect Rebeck has poured into this play a lot of her own experience as a talented woman in a man’s world, giving voice to her own frustration and indignation. I’m just guessing based on the trenchant script. So bravo to Rebeck and LaTourneau for making Eliza indelible.
The stage arts have aligned to serve this show like bright stars in a constellation. Lighting Designer Allan Sean Weeks subtly dims the light on each scene near its end, which has an arresting effect. Costume Designer Alison Samantha Johnson slyly comments on the tilted playing field by allowing all the men to show up in casual arty-workplace attire (colorful shirtsleeves, tennis shoes; Weber even wears no socks) but putting the women in polished ensembles that say dressed for success. Sound Designer Madeline Clamp has inserted sexist pop music between scenes (such as “Under My Thumb,”Gold Digger,” “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch,” “Blurred Lines”) that would make a fantastic stand-alone playlist. And I found Susan Marie Rhea’s direction fascinating. Many were the moments when no dialog was spoken, but in the silent interstices between lines there were worlds of meaning and emotion.
The Keegan Theatre’s production of What We’re Up Against packs a hilarious wallop and scores a win for sex equality. Would that the play were a museum piece. But it’s not; it’s right on time. And DC is lucky to have it.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.