Review: WEBSTER'S BITCH At The Keegan Theatre

Keegan Theatre presents a story about vulgar words and the people who define them.

By: Apr. 09, 2024
Review: WEBSTER'S BITCH At The Keegan Theatre
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Playwright Jacqueline Bircher has done a seemingly impossible task with her play, WEBSTER’S BITCH. She’s written a compelling, funny, and dramatic show about lexicography and, subsequently, lexicographers. Before you ask, Merriam-Webster defines the former as “the practice of compiling dictionaries” and the latter as “an author or editor of the dictionary.” Now that we’ve got that out of the way, The Keegan Theatre opened Bircher’s meditation on “vulgar words and the people who define them” (according to Keegan’s website) this past Saturday night at the DuPont Circle theatre’s delightfully intimate space.

WEBSTER’S BITCH tells the story of a group of Webster’s Dictionary employees having a seemingly normal Friday afternoon at the office until something happens that sets off a chain reaction of dramatic and comedic events. The play starts with Gwen (Fabiola Da Silva) and Nick (Andrés F. Roa) racing to meet their deadline on a busy Friday afternoon at the publication. In the play’s reality, Gwen and Nick are charged with keeping the dictionary relevant in this rapidly evolving, hyper-technological age. This includes adding new words, updating use cases of old ones, finding real-world citations or examples to support their work, and because it is set in the present, managing Webster’s social media presence as well. 

While the two race against the clock, Gwen’s sister, Ellie (Irene Hamilton), impatiently waits for Gwen at the empty desk of the office’s top boss, Frank (Timothy H. Lynch) - but more on him later. A work commitment is taking Ellie to Nepal in just a few short days, and she’s been promised Friday margaritas with her sister before she goes. However, her sister’s Friday workload has delayed the happy hour. 

Ellie’s loose-end shenanigans are hilarious to us, the audience, but..well…a bitch…to the employees trying to get their work done. However, these shenanigans end up being the least of Nick and Gwen’s worries on this particular Friday afternoon. Earlier in the day, the aforementioned Frank attended a speaking engagement at Yale University where he was inadvertently caught on a hot mic referring to his direct report, Joyce (Sheri S. Herren), as “his bitch.” 

Besides being extremely problematic on several professional and personal levels, this slip-up has set off a firestorm. The platform formerly known as Twitter, which it is referred to in this show, is ablaze with controversy. It’s a public relations and HR nightmare for Webster’s and its employees, but Nick and Gwen are hilariously more concerned that Frank’s usage of “bitch” is not included in the most current version of Webster’s Dictionary. There’s the noun - a bitch. There’s the verb - to bitch. But there’s no listed case for “my bitch” as in to make someone a subservient. To save you the Google search, this is actually still the case according to 

Once we finally meet Joyce, the controversial comments have reached a sort of fever pitch on the internet. However, Joyce has somehow remained blissfully unaware that something is amiss. Nick and Gwen try to catch her up to speed, but they don’t get the chance before Joyce’s phone begins ringing off the hook. As Joyce learns in one phone call, the story has spread like wildfire and now publications across the country are reaching out to Joyce for comment. Joyce must deliver PR-friendly talking points in real time while on the inside, she’s fuming. 

As the play unfolds, we learn this office has a healthy dose of workplace drama to begin with. There’s the usual office politics, of course, but there’s tension that goes deeper and provides plenty of heightened situations throughout. To give an example, Gwen is in the middle of a negotiation with her boss, Joyce, for a substantial raise. Gwen feels justified because she’s doing her own job in addition to the one that has remained vacated by a former employee. Also, Gwen has been made aware she’s not compensated the same as Nick - a male employee doing relatively the same work. All this is happening on top of the “bitchy” comment Frank made, which has further complicated an already tense relationship with his direct report Joyce. 

The employees deal with the internal and external drama of the day’s events and are forced to face several of the aforementioned pockets of tension along the way. Soon, it becomes clear the hot mic incident was just the match that lit the fuse as the drama continues to explode all the way until the play’s conclusion. We’re not left with the tidiest ending, and that’s perhaps intentional on the part of playwright Jacqueline Bircher. 

By the play’s end, we’re left wanting to spend more time with these characters and this drama. We want to find out what happens next! Some would argue (including this reviewer) that this is one of the marks of a good play, and WEBSTER’S BITCH is just that.

Keegan’s production of WEBSTER’S BITCH has all the ingredients of a terrific outing at the theatre. First, Bircher’s script wastes no space coming in at a tight 90 minutes but somehow manages to cover a lot of ground. We learn enough about each character to really care about their respective objectives in the play, and this is particularly true with Gwen. So many of us have felt our worth was not recognized by our employers and, therefore, have had to fight for that recognition. It’s a universal theme that connects the audience with the play effortlessly. 

And though I can’t say getting caught on a hot mic is a universal experience, we’ve all perhaps said something we shouldn’t have when the wrong person (or persons, in this case) was listening and had to deal with the fallout. The bottom line is the play is chock full of situations and people we can relate to. 

Additionally, Keegan has assembled a first-rate cast that brings each character to life splendidly. Fabiolla Da Silva as Gwen shoulders much of the play’s heft and does so spectacularly. Irene Hamilton as her sister Ellie is also excellent as the comic relief, but she has enough of a well-rounded character to be realistic and believable. Andrés F. Roa as Nick does tremendous work, and my only qualm with him was his extended absence from the stage in the show’s middle section. Not his fault at all! As the deeply-serious boss of Gwen and Nick, Sheri S. Herren no doubt brought up some of the audience’s traumatic memories of hard-nosed bosses of the past as Joyce, and Timothy H. Lynch perfectly captures the swagger and arrogance of the top-of-the-food-chain boss, Frank. 

There is truly no weak link in this ensemble, and each does their part to elevate an already solid script. Of course, credit must also be given to the production’s Director, and Keegan’s Artistic Director, Susan Marie Rhea. Rhea had a plethora of riches at her disposal and made the most of it with this piece. 

WEBSTER’S BITCH delivers a powerful punch in a tight 90-minute package. It questions how we use language and explores the people who get to write the rules of that language. Mix in those people’s own ambitions and personal tensions, and you’ve got an intriguing story. It’s a play that’s worth delaying those Friday afternoon margaritas for…or not! After all, Keegan does have a small bar serving alcoholic drinks to those old enough to partake on the 2nd floor.

WEBSTER’S BITCH runs from now until May 5, 2024 at DC’s Keegan Theatre. Alongside Rhea as the show’s director, the creative team includes the following: Charlotte La Nasa (Assistant to the Director & Dramaturg), Matthew Keenan (Co-Scenic Designer), Cindy Landrum Jones (Co-Scenic Designer & Properties/Set Dressing Designer), Dean Leong (Lighting Designer), Brandon Cook (Sound Designer), Shadia Hafiz (Costume Designer), and Mary Doebel (Stage Manager).

Understudies for the production are Alicia Grace (Gwen u/s), Carianmax Benitez (Ellie u/s), Gary DuBreuil (Nick/Frank u/s), and Cate Brewer (Joyce u/s).

WEBSTER’S BITCH has a runtime of 90 minutes with no intermission. To quote the pre-show announcement, “You’re welcome.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Fabiolla da Silva (Gwen), Irene Hamilton (Ellie), and Andrés F. Roa (Nick). Photography by Cameron Whitman.


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