BWW Review: Steppenwolf's World Premiere of THE FUNDAMENTALS Takes A Cheeky, Entertaining Stab at Corporate Culture
Erika Sheffer's witty and laugh-out-loud funny new play THE FUNDAMENTALS paints a bleak portrait of corporate culture within the New York location of a fictitious major hotel chain. Sheffer sets the tongue-in-cheek tone from the initial moments of the play, which opens with an overly polished film emphasizing the staff's important role in optimizing the guest experience. This hilarious, dry wit also extends to the natural and biting dialogue.
And while this film footage is sleek and glamorous, the entirety of Sheffer's play takes place in the staff room in the basement of the hotel (ingeniously designed with painstaking, visceral detail by Collette Pollard). Surrounded by neatly arranged toiletries and stark lighting, this is where we meet Millie (Alana Arenas), who has worked as a maid at the hotel for nine years-but dreams of more. And though Millie is frustrated with the lack of upward mobility in her workplace, she also feels a strong obligation not to stir the pot because of her 10-year-old daughter Cleo and her husband, Lorenzo (Armando Riesco) who works at the hotel as a technician and also out of loyalty to her boss, Abe (Alan Wilder) who has been a dutiful employee for 30 years. Nevertheless, when new front desk clerk and aspiring actor Stellan (Caroline Neff) suggests to Millie that she ought to aim a little higher and use whatever tactics she can to move her way up, Millie can't help but be persuaded-even if it it means trying to get in with her indifferent boss and hotel manager Eliza (Audrey Francis).
What Sheffer manages to capture so cleverly in THE FUNDAMENTALS is this overwhelming theme of frustration in the workplace and that sense that it can be difficult to climb up the ladder without, well, "selling your soul." But Sheffer's play also indulges in several more mundane moments-we see Millie and Lorenzo bicker on breaks (or sometimes get along quite well indeed), and Millie and Abe sorting through fancy belongings left behind by departed guests. THE FUNDAMENTALS suggests that even as Millie strives for more, she also tries to find satisfaction in the everyday-until she finds that it's no longer enough and that her hunger to succeed overcomes those more quotidian pleasures.
Arenas's lovely performance emphasizes this point further-her Millie is endearing, sincere and likable but we also see the fire within her. Under the direction of Yasen Peyankov, she's in excellent company. The always delightful Neff makes Stellan extremely affable even as we realize just how cunning she is. Riesco is sweet as Lorenzo but also allows us to see why he makes Millie so crazy sometimes. Francis, who had a phenomenal turn earlier this year in a dramatically different role in American Theater Company's KILL FLOOR, proves her versatility as Eliza. She maintains a slightly icy facade towards Millie and her co-workers, even as she tries to sell false hope and assurance to her employees. Wilder balances out the rest with his sweet performance.
THE FUNDAMENTALS is a biting and wholly entertaining play which will surely resonate with anyone who has ever worked in an office setting. And while the plot has some predictable elements, Sheffer's keen and original writing style and the actor's superb deliveries make this an enjoyable and comedic night of theater.
THE FUNDAMENTALS plays the Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf, 1650 North Halsted and has been extended through December 31. Tickets are $20-$89. To purchase tickets, call 312.335.1650 or visit steppenwolf.org.
Photo by Michel Brosilow