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Below the Belt: A Corporate Fantasyland from Hell at Country Playhouse

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The setup:

Existential comedy gets an effective workout at the intimate Black Box Theater inside Country Playhouse. That the audience comes out a bit stronger afterward is testament to the ensemble cast that gives these Everyman ciphers real flesh and blood.

The execution:

Best known perhaps for his television series that starred Blair Brown, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, playwright Richard Dresser has written numerous plays that have been staples in regional theater for years. Here, in his three-character study from 1995, he depicts the inhuman grind of the corporation, a nameless behemoth in some forsaken land spoiling the ecology and chewing up its workers.

Crusty veteran Hanrahan (John Stevens) and new guy Dobbitt (Todd Thigpen) are "checkers," a rung above the drudges on the line. Is this a factory or a prison? Hell, perhaps. Manic supervisor Merkin (Kurt Bauer) wields a "void" rubber stamp like a guillotine, bringing it down on his stack of papers with an ominous, reverberating thud. Hanrahan and Dobbitt type up daily reports and feel lucky to have such jobs, mindless as they might be. They play at word games, as much to pass the time as to keep us in the dark as to what's happening and where we are. For a long time we feel stuck in an endless loop from Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine, but then the magic of theater sweeps us along -- with the actors' sterling ability to make the abnormal quite normal -- and we actually settle in, even anticipating the verbal sparring of Dresser's artsy, round-robin dialogue.

There's an evocative scene between Hanrahan and Dobbitt as they take a break on the bridge between dormitory (cell?) and Merkin's tiny office. Innocent Dobbitt, wanting desperately to fit in and make friends, looks over the infested river and approaches Hanrahan smoking his pipe. Hanrahan turns on him and shouts that this is his view, to look the other way. Dobbitt does as he's told, turning his back and staring elsewhere. It's small particulars like this that bring all Dresser's mumbo-jumbo crashing back to earth where we can appreciate the human quality of it. A great help is the effective set design, by Stevens and director Trevor Cone, which is made out of industrial pipes, with a chain fence that covers the back walls, and a bridge between office and living quarters. We feel as isolated as the characters. When frightened, Dobbitt notices that unknown animals have begun to invade the property, little red lights shine out from the walls. It's funny and creepy.

Fortunately, the cast handles all the tony concepts with dexterity and depth. Stevens, always a marvel, overlays Hanrahan's crust with layers of hidden hurt. When he thinks his wife has written him, he glows from the inside and does a little leap and lovely cackle of pure joy. As innocent Dobbitt, Thigpen reacts like someone thrown to the lions without knowing why. He has to deal with Hanrahan's bullying and Merkin's psychotic boss from hell. He's corrupted slowly, and looks the part. Bauer takes inept Merkin very near over the top, but how else to show all his contradictions: his neediness, cowardliness and urge to be loved. He just wants a good laugh with the boys, and then lets rip a real hoot. He's totally unmoored from reality, yet we've all known someone just like him. Director Cone keeps everything moving like a fever dream, with able assist from John Baker's atmospheric lighting and Cone's own sound design.

The verdict:

All three men get a taste of freedom, but by the end are pulled back into the corporation's mighty maw. They continue where they started, except more beady little red eyes surround them. I haven't a clue what the title means, but Dresser isn't big on hope.

Richard Dresser's corporate fantasyland from hell runs through April 7 at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. Purchase tickets online at www.countryplayhouse.org or call 713-467-4497. $12-$22.

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