Theresa Rebeck’s trenchant workplace comedy What We’re Up Against — currently receiving its New York premiere from WP Theater, under Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s fast-paced, entertaining direction — predates the playwright’s brief tenure as creator and showrunner of the television series Smash. Yet you might find it hard to separate the play’s particulars from Rebeck’s experience with the NBC musical drama, which ended in her very public firing after the show’s first season. Here, a talented young architect finds herself undercut by the whims of her boorish male colleagues. Rebeck suffered a similar fate, which she chronicled in “What Came Next,” an essay about her tumultuous tenure. “As the dust settled,” Rebeck wrote, “it became clear that at the management level, a lot of dastardly stories had been invented about my character.”
Eliza (Krysta Rodriguez), the woman at the center of the 2011 play, can relate. Her boss, Stu (Damian Young, the very embodiment of a skin-crawling creep), describes her as “a lying, deceitful, dishonest little manipulator.” He makes it clear to Ben (Jim Parrack) that he has no problem working with women — it’s 1992, after all (Tilly Grimes’ spot-on costumes squarely ground us in the period) — but they should know their place. Meanwhile, Weber (Skylar Astin), who joined the firm after Eliza, manages to get ahead by using the good-old-boy network to his advantage, while she rots away in “the worst office on the floor.” Even Janice (Marg Helgenberger, excellent), the only other woman architect, aligns herself with the dudes, deflecting the casually sexist comments they send her way.
But Rebeck gives Eliza a trump card: she’s smarter than everyone else. Rodriguez relishes this in a thoughtful, savvy performance that gets to the heart of what women in the workforce have to endure, both then and now. One moment, she silently screams into a Styrofoam cup at the water cooler, utterly dismayed by the obstacles she faces just to get by. A second later, she cracks the code to a problem that stumps her superiors. She would be running this company, you think, were it not for the retrograde attitudes at the top. Rodriguez plays every facet of Eliza’s personality — exasperation, cunning, guile, fierce intelligence, resilience — with absolute commitment, leaving the audience no doubt as to who really is the smartest person in the room.
And therein lies the chief problem: Eliza emerges as the only three-dimensional person onstage. Sure, certain character elements will ring true to anyone who’s spent time in corporate America: how old-dog Stu feels threatened by the younger generation; how Janice goes along to get along in a heavily male ecosystem; Weber’s unbridled sense of entitlement; and all the blithely sexist and misogynist remarks that emerge rapid fire, usually in Eliza’s direction. But creating such easily hateful characters — Stu and Weber have about as much depth as a panto villain — sets up an imbalance of power between Eliza and everyone else, which allows Rebeck to preach to the choir.
Even the supposedly sympathetic Ben barely registers. His interest in Eliza remains unclear: Does he support her? Does he want to subjugate her? Get in her pants? All of the above? The writing offers few clues as to his true motives. We’re not sure if he’s a good guy or not, but this doesn’t feel like willful ambiguity; it feels like woeful underdevelopment. Parrack’s performance rarely helps matters. He stalks Narelle Sissons’ unimaginative office set in a daze, as if waiting to hit his next mark. (I don’t entirely blame him — if I was saddled with such a doltish part, I’d probably lose interest, too). At least Young and Astin appear to be having fun acting out the loutish stereotypes they’ve been assigned, and Helgenberger brings a level of depth to Janice that’s not in the writing.
What We’re Up Against ultimately shows what women are up against — at work, in relationships, in the world in general — and how little things change as the decades’ pass. Rebeck could make her points more artfully, but maybe that’s not her intent. Eliza’s struggles have been her struggles; as she wrote in “What Came Next,” being a working woman means facing down a “misogyny beyond anything that people believe when I tell these stories.” Here, she wields her messages like blunt objects. But who am I to say that we don’t all need a good smack in the head from time to time?
What We’re Up Against runs to November 26, 2017. More production info can be found by clicking here.