In the Land of Dilbert

Richard Dresser's Below the Belt, currently premiering in Houston at Stages, takes on corporate America. You know corporate America: Every Dilbert doodad from bumper stickers to T-shirts to bookmarks to comic strips thumb-tacked to the company coffee cart tells you how much it sucks. Those bastions of greed and power chew up their workers, advance mediocrity, disdain originality, pollute the environment. Of course, now there's flextime, shared jobs and on-site daycare; but still, when squat, square-headed Dilbert watches some tall guy advance because he's got "corporate hair," it rings so absurdly true that most folks will at least grin while they pour their coffee, if not laugh out loud.

And many people will probably laugh out loud at Below the Belt -- at least in the beginning. In the play, three men -- Hanrahan, Dobbitt and Merkin -- are stuck working in a nameless industrial compound, "off-country," without their wives, in a creepy sort of corporate Sartrean hell from which there is no escape. Strange, red-eyed animals stalk the night just beyond the compound's barbed-wire fence. A river bubbles along, right through the middle of things (this is a very inventive set). The water glows with all sorts of unnatural colors, depending on what's cooking in the plant.

Merkin (Jerry Miller), the petty, tyrannical middle-management boss, lives to stamp his big red "VOID" on company forms; he also thrills at the possibility of tormenting the members of his tiny fiefdom, which consists of two underlings: Hanrahan (Rutherford Cravens) and Dobbitt (Jim Parsons). These poor drones are forced to room together in a corrugated-metal corporate cell that's too cold or too hot for comfort. Even worse, the ugly twin beds are bolted down.

These three men are the company "checkers," though when Dobbitt, the new guy, wants to know exactly what it is they are checking, Hanrahan and Merkin just laugh -- maniacally, of course. This is, after all, satire. And what's being satirized is how absurdly, how insidiously, how unbelievably evil corporations are as they chip away at the individual psyche, turning it into a puddle of infantile whining over such ridiculous minutiae as who gets to sit where in the boss's office, who gets invited to the company party and who gets called to the boss's office and by what signal (is it two rings or one?). In this nightmarish industrial landscape, you literally don't see your spouse for years, you work and worry so much that you sleep in your suit and all three of your clip-on ties are exactly the same shade of burgundy.

Though Stages' production of Below the Belt is everything and more than this little play deserves, the problem is that Dresser's ideas have all been covered before and in much more clever ways. Everyone from Dilbert creator Scott Adams to Nikolai Gogol -- who wrote "The Overcoat," about an ordinary man who loses his coat and eventually his life over bureaucratic red tape -- has discussed the mean stupidity of faceless bureaucracies. And because Below the Belt doesn't get much more absurd than allowing the boss to get wildly lucky, save the day and win a big promotion -- well, Dresser isn't Kafka or Gogol. (Nobody dies.) And the play simply doesn't delve deeply enough into this well-charted territory to say anything new about it.

The production is amusing, however. And much of the fun of the evening comes from Carolyn Houston Boone's terrifically energetic direction. She has the actors moving back and forth and up and down like rats across the mazelike stage. They squeeze by each other, trying to maneuver their ways through this heart-crushing world of slammed doors, manila files and brown desks, metal lamps and stained coffeepots.

The production's merits also include a wonderful, stage-stealing performance by Rutherford Cravens as the bad-tempered, wickedly cynical and mean-mouthed Hanrahan. He hulks about the tiny set, undermining newly arrived Dobbitt in every way he can; he's the middle-aged throwback who's sold his soul for corporate life. When we later discover that there's more to Hanrahan than first meets the eye, Cravens manages to make this rather peculiar turn in the script ring true.

Good too are Jim Parsons as the enthusiastic checker, Dobbitt, who just wants to be liked, and Jerry Miller as Merkin, the squirrelly little boss who sneaks around his employees, prying into their personal affairs, worrying whether or not they like him and doing no detectable work of his own.

Thom Guthrie's set is also very clever, with cutaway corrugated steel walls, a file cabinet built around one of the pillars that holds up the theater's ceiling and a concrete bridge that crosses the little river. Chains and doors and most everything done in metal insinuates the emptiness of this place, its lack of any sort of spirit whatsoever.

But despite these pleasures, it isn't terribly long before the whole "corporations suck" idea simply runs out of steam. After all, it's already being handled quite well in a five-frame comic strip.

Below the Belt plays through May 10 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway.

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Lee Williams