'The Thugs': Reading the Internet-Lunatic Tea Leaves
There are plays that work very hard to say a lot of things in as many words as possible. They stretch on and on, satisfying every question, resolving every issue, leaving no doubt to the playwright's intent.
And then there are plays such as The Thugs. Nothing in Adam Bock's 2006 OBIE-award winning play, from the title to its Dunder-Mifflin-esqe office, seems to make sense. We're never sure exactly what is happening or why it's happening. Yet the 55-minute express ride is intense, infused with creepy malevolence and dark humor. And though it's ultimately a cipher, it's a fascinating riddle, one that somehow manages to say a great deal without saying anything specific.
One thing is certain: The play is set in an office on the ninth floor of a towering building. It appears to be staffed by a flotilla of legal aids, but why they are continually stamping documents and why empty boxes of printer paper are strewn everywhere are never fully addressed.
The play begins lightly, with Mercedes (Roma Maffia) arriving first and cooing to a stuffed animal that is the centerpiece of her desk. But as the rest of her officemates arrive, it's clear they are working under a looming tension. Someone on the fourth floor has died recently, perhaps been murdered, and police are sniffing around the building. The convenience store on the first floor is closed. The company's boss didn't come to work today. The characters are, at turns, consumed by the recent events and in denial about them. Gossip and speculation prevail, a cache of snacks provides welcome relief, and everyone knows something's happening here, but what it is ain't exactly clear.
We're given very little information about these characters' back stories; all we have to gauge them on are their reactions to the nightmare unfolding around everyone. There's Elaine (Sarah Underwood Saviana), who seems to be the most blasé about the situation, but who either falls or is pushed down the stairs and returns to her desk, bloody. There's Sarah (Alexandra Billings), who, when not mired in paperwork, either erupts in spontaneous laughter or blurts out information as though a honking goose. There's Daphne (Anna Steer), who provides most of the comic relief, as she is very forthright about how much she hates work and what a bad worker she is—but even her nonchalant aura is checked by the arrival of her boyfriend, Joey (Andre Garner), who is apparently trying to extort money from her. Added to the mix are Diane (Tiffanne Hall), who seems to be the most in charge; Chantal (Suzannah Gratz), a temp dropped into the middle of this mess; and the lone male, Bart (Christopher Foster-Shaw).
The play is briskly directed by Anne Justine D'Zmura, who manages to pull solid performances from her eight-person ensemble, which skillfully navigates Bock's short bursts of dialogue, shifting conflicts and long, eerie silences. Again: We may not know exactly what is occurring, but the brooding atmosphere and looming menace of something turns this into a white-knuckler that gets positively hair-raising with the gruesome final image.
Issues of domestic violence and the faceless culture of corporate America manifest from time to time, but the most compelling idea broached is good, old-fashioned American paranoia. At one point, Sarah delivers a short monologue that efficiently condenses the metric between the amount of people talking about something and the way that talking, thanks to the Internet, turns into an avalanche of wide-eyed rumormongering. Though the play was written seven years ago, it's clear, in the wake of ridiculous false flags by the lunatic fringe—everything from the 2011 Norway mass murders to the Boston Marathon bombings—that Bock was clearly reading the tea leaves. Even though characters are gripped by fear in the wake of a faceless terror, that terror still exists. Something is out there, and the strength of Bock's play lies in that brooding ambiguity
The Thugs is the last production in Joanne Gordon's 10-year tenure as artistic director of California Repertory Co., a professional company that's an extension of Cal State Long Beach's graduate theater program. She inherited a program in disarray (her predecessor had basically turned it into a vehicle for his plays) and, in 2006, was forced to move from a 99-seat theater due to seismic concerns. But she energized Cal Rep's programming and oversaw a successful 2009 move to the Royal Theatre, tucked in the back end of the Queen Mary. Whoever follows in the footsteps of the retiring Gordon better have some strong sandals.
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