In the program notes for the Pope Theatre Company's edgy staging of the surreal comedy Below the Belt, playwright Richard Dresser is quoted as saying: "In the course of supporting myself as a writer over the past few decades, I've had the occasion to work at a series of jobs ranging from a plastics factory where I made G.I. Joe's thighs with a molding machine to writing sitcoms for television with a group of other writers." Armed with a plethora of impressions from occupational battles on the business front, Dresser has written a scathing parody about alienation in the workplace.
Below the Belt is the ambitious product of a careful listener who took notes on how men in suits jockey for position and practice psychological warfare. Anyone who has been in the trenches will relate to Dresser's mother lode of material. Ever been humiliated on the job? Lines such as "I'm your boss. It's my job to tyrannize you" will make you laugh and squirm. For those who have felt stifled, frustrated, or held back at work, this interaction will strike a chord: "You have nothing to worry about," one colleague says to another who has been summoned by the boss. "Just don't be yourself." Indeed, this incisor-sharp lampoon recapitulates every form of degradation we've all suffered in the process of earning a living.
Set in a nameless industrial compound in a foreign country during, the program informs us, "the present, only more so," Below the Belt follows the career paths of three company "checkers," men who inspect the output of fellow workers. Under J. Barry Lewis's confident direction, the trio of actors portraying the men deliver absurdly comic as well as poignant performances. Traber Burns as the right-brained boss Merkin embraces the vagaries of bureaucracy with witty, understated zeal. As Hanrahan, John Felix puts a kinetic and complex spin on a character who is both a misanthropic bully and a man longing for a soulmate. As Dobbitt, the overeager newcomer to the plant who yearns to be liked and loathes being alone, Warren Kelley nails the exact pitch of anxiety we feel in a job when uncertain of where we stand.
Three factories on the compound hum around the clock, producing hundreds of thousands of units of some enigmatic product. Although Hanrahan can recite the number of units produced every minute, hour, and day, none of the men knows exactly what the units are. They do know, however, that a huge order must be shipped by a certain date and that it is their job to check the factory workers' productivity. To insure completion of the order, the men live together in the compound, sacrificing their domestic lives (all three are married) to the demands of their work. The only escape from the claustrophobia of the factories is on a dock overlooking a polluted river; its color, as Hanrahan explains, "varies according to our manufacturing schedule." Beyond the barbed-wire fence that encloses the compound, the men hear the moans and see the piercing yellow eyes of what appear to be wild animals. Against this backdrop, and despite their skepticism and fear of each other, the woefully solitary men attempt to connect. The success and failure of that attempt provides the evening with its narrative drive.
Dresser weaves a chillingly funny tale that displays his trenchant eye for character and a dizzying command of language. In true Orwellian fashion, the men use words to deceive and manipulate. Hanrahan and Merkin in particular engage in a labyrinthine form of Newspeak, in which meanings shift from sentence to sentence, to undermine the new kid on the block.
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The playwright is less assured when it comes to plot, however. The story develops at a rapid clip, only to stall at the denouement; there Dresser opts for an easy resolution and an oddly sentimental ending that doesn't jibe with the ominous tone of the rest of the piece. Lewis's assured direction, combined with energetic and believable performances, lessens the disappointment of this clumsy wrapup, and the entire production ultimately coheres, thanks partially to an intricate set that draws us irrevocably into the checkers' world, menacing lighting design, discordant sound, and corporate-uniform costumes.
Below the Belt premiered at the Humana Festival in Louisville in 1995, followed by a New York run starring Judd Hirsch. Reading that the piece was a "corporate satire," I pictured a sterile set complete with sealed climate-control windows, dull grey carpet, and a central computer network, much like the streamlined offices I have had occasion to work in. Michael Amico's design delightfully confounded my expectation. He has created a complicated subterranean den with different parts of the Pope's stage serving as Merkin's office, the dock overlooking the river, Hanrahan and Dobbitt's bunker (replete with army-issue cots and blankets), and a patch of dirt outside that room where they go to brood. Amico has filled the space with the detritus of antiquated offices, including file boxes, adding machines, and manual typewriters; without a computer in sight, we feel as if we are in a business-world Stone Age. Suzanne M. Jones's variously fluorescent green, bright orange, and mustard-color lighting adds to that sense of time warp, while David Pair's sound design, including acoustic cuts from Tom Waits's The Black Rider and Night on Earth albums, drives home the feeling of being suspended in the middle of a frightening nowhere. We do know we are in the presence of team-player conformity, however, because of Erin Stearns Amico's costumes: gray suits, brown ties, tie clips, pens or eyeglass cases protruding from white shirt pockets, and, worn at an office party, matching flowered shirts (tres risque).
Despite a dip in dramatic arc at the end, Dresser's satire recalls a tradition of absurdist writing about bureaucratic landscapes, including Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, Kafka's The Trial, Orwell's 1984, Heller's Catch-22, and Karel Capek's drama R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). While Belt may not make it into the upper ranks of such masterworks, it does illuminate how isolated working people can feel, even when in close proximity. "The play," Dresser has said, "is about the deep loneliness of men working together." The script and the Pope's thought-provoking, unsettling production utterly succeed in conveying that message.
Below the Belt.
Written by Richard Dresser; directed by J. Barry Lewis; with John Felix, Warren Kelly, and Traber Burns. Through January 12. For information call 800-514-3837 or see "Calendar Listings.