What We're Up Against: A Tough Day at the Office

Check out our interview with director Scott Schwartz.

The setup: You've come a long way, baby (that would be playwright Theresa Rebeck), especially if you want to prove that you, too, can write like David Mamet, scouring the wallpaper off the Alley's Neuhaus Stage with a tsunami of profanity while exposing the gender inequities in the workplace. Rebeck's comedy is all that, but not much more. The execution: Originally, Rebeck's play was an intense but short two-character one-acter (1992) that focused on architects Stu and Ben discussing the newest hire, a female architect, in terms that would curl your toes. Over drinks, the misogynists rip her apart yet reveal all their insecurities at having a "lying, deceitful little manipulator" as a colleague. And that's a compliment compared to what they really think of her. It was a sharp dissection of bully-boy tactics, disguised as the typical work environment, that illuminated the battle of the sexes.

I like to think times have changed, if not attitudes. Sure, there are plenty of male chauvinist dinosaurs still around and in positions of power to do damage to anyone they don't like, but Rebeck's fleshed-out dramedy has the heady whiff of ancient feminist history. It's set "in the present" but feels like 20 years ago, if not longer, as if the gender politics in the firm are entrenched in the era of Betty Friedan. Men behaving badly over competing women co-workers certainly is not gone with the wind and will lurk in the shadows for a very long time to come, but Rebeck's skill lies in the accuracy of the scalpel as she dissects with sting and gusto the place where we work, whether one's female or not. That she gets down. Forget the gender gap, it's how we deal with our co-workers: how we interact, intimidate, cow, bully, schmooze and brown-nose that's so comically depicted. We laugh at the revealing sad truth. This seems more the heart of the play than Eliza's condescending co-workers, who don't want a woman around at all.

Hired as a "protégée" of the firm's CEO, who is talked about but never seen, Eliza (Julia Motyka) enters this testosterone-filled den of architects and immediately butts heads with Stu (David Andrew Macdonald), the firm's manager who's stuck in prehistoric times when it comes to women in the workplace. Eliza's put into a broom closet of an office and not given any projects to work on. She's terribly gifted and terribly obnoxious, knowing full well she's "eight times as talented" as any of the office "boneheads," pro Ben (David Rainey), clueless Weber (Chris Hutchison), and female token Janice (Nancy Lemenager). Ben's the only one who might be close to her level, but he doesn't have time for her since he can't figure out a design flaw in the firm's latest multimillion-dollar project. This running gag about "duct work" splendidly pays off at the end in Eliza's delicious double-cross.

The intricacies of office politics get rich comic treatment, as loyalties shift within scenes. Eliza stirs up the place. Even sunny Janice, who's been there ten years with nothing to show for it, offers Eliza powder-puff advice about how to play along, and then eventually turns on her to keep peace with Cro-Magnon Stu. Like in Mauritius, Rebeck's satisfying and also Mamet-inspired play about a rare stamp that the Alley produced so marvelously a few seasons past, What We're Up Against hinges around an elusive blueprint that is Eliza's solution to the duct work problem. When she finally shows it to Ben, she unrolls it like Jim in Treasure Island revealing the pirate's treasure map. The blueprint now has such import, we hang upon it breathless. It's a defining moment in the play, and the most emotionally fulfilling.

The physical production by scenic and lighting designer Kevin Rigdon is classy and slick, using a turntable and a desk or two that quickly reconfigures into another office. The glass drafting table is a stunner. Director Scott Schwartz keeps everything and everyone moving, which is a good thing since Rebeck stalls all too often.

The cast is well-nigh perfect, doing the best that can be done with these sketchy "types." Motyka has the heaviest burden since Eliza is prickly and not warm to the touch. We know she's a good architect, but we're left a bit stand-offish by her, even at the end when she so nimbly turns the tables. Rainey is awfully good as good man Ben gone to seed, nearly corrupted by office intrigue. Lemenager finds all the right notes in playing Janice's one-note persona, and she turns our head as easily as she does Weber's, who almost salivates when she's nearby. Hutchison is a dream as fatuous Weber, and his "presentation" about history and shopping, along with his smart phone sound effects, is a joy. Clueless, his office golden boy is pure plate. Weaselly Stu is painted in masterstrokes by Macdonald, whose chiseled head and deep baritone only add to his picture of a man who thinks he's master of the universe. We don't like Stu at all, and Macdonald doesn't care. He's one bad dude.

The verdict: Although Rebeck's play is muted by the girl-power theme that beats incessantly and a heroine we don't really warm to, there's enough office politics to fill a pilot of a very clever cable show. Rebeck has just left hit show Smash as that show's lead writer and producer; who's to say there's not another series, maybe about architects, waiting in the wings?

Rebeck's off-balance mix of David Mamet-like gender politics, the glass ceiling and sit-com office comedy runs through June 10 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Purchase tickets online at or call 713-228-8421. $25-$62.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover