'What We're Up Against': Theater Review

What We're Up Against Production Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Timely but unsubtle.

Marg Helgenberger and Skylar Astin appear in Theresa Rebeck's 1990s-set drama about the rampant sexism in a boutique architectural firm.

Theresa Rebeck's drama depicts the rampant sexism at a boutique architectural firm working on plans for the expansion of a shopping mall. Written and set in 1992 but only now receiving its off-Broadway premiere, the play couldn't feel more dated.

After all, what shopping malls are being expanded these days?

Sadly, that plot element is the only untimely aspect of What We're Up Against, being presented by the WP Theater in a production featuring Marg Helgenberger (CSI) and Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect) among its impressive cast. Arriving in the wake of the numerous allegations against Harvey Weinstein and practically every other male in a position of power, the drama boasts a fresh if unfortunate immediacy.

The title, ironically, doesn't refer to the plight of Eliza (Krysta Rodriguez, Trial & Error) and Janice (Helgenberger), the firm's two female employees. Rather, it's the plaintive gripe of their boss Stu (Damian Young, House of Cards), who in the opening scene engages in a whiskey-fueled, profanity-laden rant about women in the workplace with his employee Ben (Jim Parrack, True Blood, Suicide Squad).

"Women are just always a total f-----g nightmare. That's all I'm saying," offers Ben by way of agreement with his boss.

Stu is particularly upset because Eliza, frustrated over not being given enough to do and relegated to a "broom closet" office since she joined the firm five months ago, has passed off her own work as that of her co-worker Weber (Astin). It seems that Eliza had ingeniously solved a problem concerning air ducts for the shopping mall expansion and knew that Stu would only pay attention if the design came from a man. "She tricked me," Stu complains, even though her work is exemplary. "She is a lying, deceitful, dishonest little manipulator. I don't mind working with her. But, she is a bitch. That, I mind."

The resulting internal discord finds Eliza desperately trying to maintain her status at the firm, despite everyone's belief that she's sleeping with the owner. Her sole female colleague Janice provides little support, having determined a long time ago that the best way to get ahead is simply to get along. Ultimately, Eliza resorts to more subterfuge to get revenge and her point across.

What We're Up Against features a provocative premise, but Rebeck's writing, heavily influenced by David Mamet, fails to do it full justice. The characters are so one-dimensional they might as well have their defining traits tattooed on their foreheads; the dialogue is repetitive and exclamatory; and the storyline feels padded despite the relatively brief running time. The play picks up the pace somewhat in the second act, but by then its message has long since come through loud and clear.

On the other hand, Adrienne Campbell-Holt's snappy staging, presented on Narelle Sissons' two-tiered set that effectively conveys several different offices, achieves a lot on a small budget. And the performers bring a fierce energy to their characterizations that goes a long way toward compensating for the stereotypical aspects.

That we need a play like What We're Up Against at this particular time is indisputable. That it rarely rises above the level of cliche thus makes it all the more disappointing.

Venue: WP Theater, New York City
Cast: Skylar Astin, Marg Helgenberger, Jim Parrack, Krysta Rodriguez, Damian Young
Playwright: Theresa Rebeck
Director: Adrienne Campbell-Holt
Set designer: Narelle Sissons
Costume designer: Tilly Grimes
Lighting designer: Grant Yeger
Sound designer: M.L. Dogg
Presented by WP Theater