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A CurtainUp Review
Core Values

My dad made cars.He worked at a Ford plant in Detroit. He was an engineer.—Richard

My mom's dad, he made furniture. Chairs and tables and stuff. He had his own store.—Eliot

Reed Birney
Photo credit: Ben Arons>
As adventurous Americans followed Horace Greeley's advice, so adventurous theater goers have headed to Manhattan's far west to check out what's doing at Ars Nova. The highlight of Ars Nova's season last year was Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, described by our critic William Coyle as "a full-scale production of painstakingly high quality" and which has now been Drama Desk and Drama League nominated in the best musical category.

The news now is a new play, Core Values. Ars Nova commissioned Steven Levenson to write it and is now presenting it for a very limited run. Though billed as a comedy it explores a serious and timely theme, the effect of a drastically changing workplace on American enterprise and on the lives of both its employers and worker bees.

While this subject has gotten plenty of attention in news and feature stories, the single most effective fictional exploration has been Dave Eggers' excellent novel, Hologram for a King. Thus, a live and lively drama tackling the critical changes American workers have had to and continue to face is certainly welcome.

Levenson's decision to focus on the travel business makes perfect sense since it was one of the first booming industries to fall victim to the Internet. And, with the always sure to be worth watching Reed Birney to star and Carolyn Cantor who directed the Pulitzer runner-up 4000 Miles at the helm , I headed towards Tenth Avenue and fifty-fourth street with high hopes.

My reservations that it would be hard to find much to laugh about in a situation that has now been a reality for many people for years, lifted as soon as the play began. The first of many quick scenes that establish the set-up of a small New York travel agency's annual workshop or retreat weekend drew gales of laughter from the packed house at the performance I attended — that's even though it takes only minutes for this retreat to reveal it as part of desperate, belt-tightning and recovery m attempts by Richard (Reed Birney), the company CEO, to turn the tide of the company's slide from prosperity.

Within the context of the travel industry's implosion and this Richard's desperate optimism, his staff's responses to his retreat-as-usual plansare indeed the stuff of black humor.

No doubt when times were good these sort of employee outings were a not unusual way to promote loyalty to the company and its core values. And the combination of just plain fun with game playing exercises was not limitd to the travel business.

Naturally, given the economics of theater in general, as well as Ars Nova's small performance space, it's up to the audience to take a leap of the imagination and envision a few more than the three actors on stage. The economical cast has, however, enabled Levenson to round out his picture of the type of middle class Americans in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

The middle aged Richard is the central character and Birney gives a fierce, superbly nuanced portrayal a man who has yet to face up to the fact that his entire life is in crisis. This is an actor who knows how to show bristling emotions without saying a word. But the threesome playing his team, all of whom are new to me, also develop unexpected layers for their characters.

Paul Thureen's Todd, the computer expert who turns out to be not nearly as cool and smart as he thinks he is. Getting to know him better underscores the depth of Richard's delusion to cling to his belief that he's got a terrific team and all will be okay, if only if no one jumps ship.

Susan Kelechi Watson as Nancy Richard's level-headed, no-nonsense manager plays the voice of reason. She's smart and direct. When Richard confides that he wants to give Todd the raise he asked for in order not to lose him, she points out Todd's inadequacies. She greets his insistence that the market is still completely out of whack and that things always be slow this time of year with "or maybe this is what it is from now on." But sharp and clear-headed as Nancy is about what the company should and shouldn't be doing, she too has trouble dealing with reality when it comes to her personal life.

Eliot (Erin Wilhelmi), the youngest and newest member of the team, represents the Millennial Generation of college graduates who need grit and and practical experience to fit into a work place that's not likely to treat them as well as it did their parents. As labor expert, Peter Cappelli of the Wharton business school recently described the way companies now regard filling a job as being “like buying a spare part: you expect it to fit." Wilhelmi is pretty and does naive enthusiasm well, so well, that she tends to ultimately be the most annoying character, as Thureen's Todd is the least sympathetic.

Interestingly, Bull another play about the tough work place where people worry about losing their jobs has also just opened off-Broadway. Mike Bartlett, the playwright of that one pictures a far more savage world, using a fight ring to stage the defeat of one of the players on stage. Yet, though Richard is not a ruthless employer but wants his employees to have fun and stay with him, it's unlikely that good intentions will win the day.

The various exercises devised by Richard as part of the retreat's agenda are reminiscent of the exercises in Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, which also feature Reed Birney. But Core Values plays out over just two days while the Baker play covered a longer time span and less of a crisis situation. Add the physical constraints of the small Ars Nova stage and the playwright and director would have been wise to consider tightening the script since the frequent between scenes exits and entrances without any scenery changes become tiresome and the play loses its grip tends to go slack with talky detours. The scenes, though brief, lose their initial briskness as well as the easy flow between humor and sadness.

Ultimately, Levenson does capture an essential economic dilemma — that people no longer make things. The main character in David Eggers' Hologram. . . started his working life making bicycles, Richard's father made automobiles, Erin's grandfather made furniture. Even selling, as Arthur Miller's Willy Loman came to realize, lost its personal connections.

Given Richard's touching and less blinded to reality final conversation with Erin, one can only hope that since he's younger than Willy, he will still find a way to deal with the reality of a rapidly and forever changing work place with less tragic finality.
Core Values
By Steven Levenson
Directed by Carolyn Cantor
Cast: Reed Birney (Richard), Susan Kelechi Watson (Nancy), Erin Wilhelmi (Eliot), Paul Thursen (Todd)
Scenic Design by Lauren Helpern
Costume Design by Emily Rebholz
Lighting Design by Traci Klainer Polimeni
Sound Design by M.L. Dogg
Stage Manager: Christine Lowe
Ars Nova 511 West 54th Street
From 4/23/13; opening 5/06/13. closing 5/18/13
Monday —Saturday at 8:00 PM
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/03/13 press Performance
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