BWW Reviews: World Premiere of THE CONSULTANT at Long Wharf
In Heidi Schreck's play, The Consultant, things are understandably tense at the office of Sutton, Feingold and McGrath, a pharmaceutical marketing firm. The year is 2009. The Great Recession already seems endless, and Big Pharma is getting desperate because so many drug patents have expired and the generics are "killing" SFM This promises to be a play that people can relate to because everyone knows someone who is unemployed or underemployed.
Schreck's observations of the ludicrous rationales in the corporate world are pretty much on the mark. The play's title refers to Amelia (Claire Barron), a 22-year-old well-meaning dilettante who has dabbled in teaching English as a Second Language, yoga, acting and other things, to help designer Jun Suk (Nelson Lee) with his presentation skills. Jun is sometimes just socially awkward, but he is also licking his wounds after a bitter divorce and difficult relationship with his 12-year-old son. So marking executive Mark (Darren Goldstein) hires Amelia, a Ph.D. candidate in immigration policy to guide him. However, she can't even pronounce Seoul, his birthplace correctly, she dresses unprofessionally in knit pants and thick woolen sweater and cap, and she coaches him while reading aloud a how-to book on delivering killer presentations. Sun's fate at SFM depends on the success of this presentation. The company already had several layoffs, but Mark believes that Jun will keep his job because he "is a designer. He actually does something." Barbara (Lynne McCollough), is a brilliant executive who claims to have left of her own volition. Rounding out the cast is Tania (Cassie Beck), an overqualified receptionist/office manager with a degree in comparative literature from NYU. ("Look what it did for me," she tells Amelia, who is also studying at NYU.) Neither seen nor heard are Harold and Travis, presumably partners at SFM.
Although the Long Wharf production of The Consultant has gems that include some witty, insightful lines and a fantastic cast, the play fails to deliver a clear message. The 90 minute play, performed without an intermission, starts off as a high altitude balloon and then immediately deflates after Jun's successful presentation. It is unclear how some things unraveled and the consequences - Jun's alcohol poisoning and prognosis, Barbara's nabbing SFM's biggest client, Amelia's confusion about how she can help people, Tania's trying to find meaning in her life and Mark's career. Is the message that life is full of unexpected things? Or is that we really don't know our co-workers? Either one is weak, especially since the play's world premiere came six years after The Great Recession began. During the time frame of the play, people were scared of losing their jobs, but no one had an inkling about the length and depth of the economic downturn.
Barbara is the most interesting character. Her former co-workers refer to her as a "wacko," but she is smart enough and bold enough to eat them up alive. Barbara notes the irony of Amelia's accumulating debt to the tune of $100,000 so that she can try to help the poor. She also bullies Amelia into revealing a painful childhood incident. I would love to see the character of Barbara be fleshed out more.
Kip Fagan's direction excellent, but the cast is amazing. There wasn't one weak performance in the play, but the real standouts were Nelson Lee as Jun and Lynne McCollough as Barbara. Claire Barron was appealing as the cheerful and optimistic Amelia and Cassie Beck played well opposite her and Darren Goldstein. It was like watching an exciting game of tennis doubles.
Andrew Boyce's set design is superb, with a conference room that is illuminated and darkened perfectly by Matt Frey. They portray in perfect synchronization the glossy surface of a high-octane company and the sterility inside with its ominous secrets and mysterious emptiness.
Still, I think the play needs to be rewritten in two acts, or possibly three, and the cast extended. There are questions that should have been asked. Why did Mark choose Amelia for such an important task? How did Amelia convince anyone that she understands the corporate world when she claims that she wants to help poor immigrants? Why couldn't Tania find a better job than a receptionist/office manager/general dogsbody? What was the truth about Barbara's leaving and her involvement with the Landmark Forum? What about the unseen Harold and Travis? Who is the third partner? How did the company get its start and become, at least for a while, so successful in a competitive industry? My guess is that the founders were marketing executives at Big Pharma and started their own firm, and their former employers outsourced the marketing to them. Isn't that how it often works? Victims of layoffs are often encouraged by career coaches (in thin imitations of the Landmark Forum) that they have been telling themselves the wrong story and that they need to empower themselves and take charge of their lives and careers.