Photo by Cristopher Gross/SCRThere are two things you need to know about Annie Weisman: she's 28, and she's a woman. Young playwrights getting work at major theaters is rare. Young female playwrights getting work at major theaters is rarer. And it's virtually unheard of for any playwright to receive two world premieres by major theaters in the same calendar year—especially an unknown playwright.
But Weisman's Hold Please is receiving its world premiere at South Coast Repertory. Her play Be Aggressive received its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse this summer. And armed with the knowledge of her age and gender, you can't help walking into SCR's Second Stage with high expectations.
Those expectations aren't always satisfied, but there's no disputing that Weisman is a very talented playwright—dazzling at times. Her dialogue and sense of theatricality give an almost surreal air to what seems a realistic dramatic piece about four secretaries in an office.
But Hold Pleaseultimately disappoints. While Weisman says what's on her mind, it's not necessarily all that interesting. Her play touches on issues that are potentially provocative: the generation gap, workplace inequality, women who want it all. But that's all it does. It's hard to get a handle on what Weisman wants us to care about in this play.
Hold Please is nevertheless a frequently enjoyable ride. The four secretaries work in the high-powered legal offices of Solomon Xavier Greenspan Sachs. Two of them are late-fortysomethings—control-freak Agatha (Kimberly K. King) and slightly ditzy Grace (Linda Gehringer)—who have been at the firm forever. Two others are in their mid-20s—the upwardly mobile Erika (Tessa Auberjonois) and the strangely wounded Jessica (Jillian Bach). The inciting incident of the play is the termination of Mr. Xavier following charges of sexual harassment. This doesn't sit well with anyone, since the firing means Xavier will lose his benefits at a time when his wife is dying from uterine cancer.
That fact helps establish the most interesting idea in Weisman's play: in their determination to achieve a purely professional, gender-neutral workplace, these woman succeed mostly in fucking things up for other women—and sometimes even for themselves.
The play moves on two tracks: the older secretaries suspect that one of the younger girls is having an affair with another partner. Additionally, the firing of Xavier prompts the company to hire a new executive, a 24-year-old hotshot female MBA whose entrance upends the office's fragile balance.
The play rambles. There's a lot of unnecessary dialogue and stories that don't advance the plot or even do much to reveal character. Paradoxically, these are the most interesting parts of the play—the story about the pregnant rat that crawls behind a copy machine, gives birth and then leaves a couple of babies behind to rot ("The smell of chemical burning of flesh. It was, like, Cambodian"), or the near-cannibalistic love the older secretaries exhibit in the presence of babies (one character says she "wanted to eat my daughter's shoulders. They were so soft and snuggly! I wanted to rip her arms out and eat 'em like short ribs.").
Such truly quirky bits, bits that director Mark Rucker guides with intense glee, make this play work. There are moments when Weisman's dialogue moves like David Mamet, and Rucker does a great job of capturing that onstage.
But the play bogs down in its own story. It's not that involving, and it's hard to care about these characters. But, reduced to mere spectators, we enjoy watching them anyway, primarily because of the talented acting. King's aging Agatha wants to "serve as the conscience for a generation that seems to have lost theirs." But in her zeal to protect, she injures. King's portrayal is a finely measured balance between professional restraint and emotional ketchup burst. By the time we discover Agatha's secret, we've already had a good look at her troubled psyche, thanks to King's excellent work.
Great performances give buoyancy to Weisman's play, but they can't make up for the lack of ballast. It's clear that she is a playwright of immense gifts, though, and it will be interesting to see where that talent leads her—and whether that talent will ever be deployed on behalf of a message worth listening to.
Hold Please at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 and 7:45 p.m. Through Oct. 21. $27-$51.
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