Hostage to the Devil

For most middle-class Americans, an afternoon trip to the dentist is the very definition of hell. Nobody knows that better than Keith Reddin, whose clever, if heartless, new comedy, Synergy, takes its audience on a twisting, fantastical spin to the netherworld located, for the time being, on the Alley Theatre's Neuhaus stage.

Director Karen Kohlhaas's slick production starts in the waiting room of an uptown dentist, where everywoman Deb (Jenny Maguire) finds herself impatiently flipping through old magazines as the minutes creep by like snails. She even crabs to a handsome stranger, who's sympathetic enough, considering he's none other than the devil's right-hand man. "It's time to go, Deb," he finally says. And just like that, the confused blond-haired businesswoman, eager to get back to work, is whisked out of this world and into the next, where she finds herself face to face with Beelzebub himself.

Soon enough Deb's trip to the dentist turns into a contemporary Faustian parable about the nasty goings-on in the modern world of business. Dressed for success in her maroon business suit -- the best shade for females climbing the corporate ladder, according to fashion guru John T. Molloy -- Deb does what any quick-thinking executive would do when teetering on the edge of the fiery pits of hell: She drives a bargain, dealing with the devil for a little more time on earth. Lucifer (Edmond Genest), it turns out, is a cell-phone-carrying, black-tie-wearing, smooth-talking Rat Pack kind of a slickster, a guy who claims that Frank and Dino stole their martini-sipping image from him. He's the kind of guy who can crack wise in a 1950s Dashiell Hammett/Rodney Dangerfield kind of way. Take, for instance, his definition of the Bible: "The longest bad review in history." Or his spin on God in the new millennium: "Like everyone else these days, he's got a short attention span." The devil's got a line for everything, so he's willing to hear Deb out.

Trouble is, since he's holding all the cards, Deb can wiggle only one lousy week out of him, but she figures that will be more than enough time to collect a few souls for the master of the underworld. If she can locate just one, the devil will consider extending her stay.

In a fairy-tale blink of an eye, Deb finds herself back on earth and standing in Roland's leather-and-stainless-steel office. As head of acquisitions at the Disney Corporation, the type-A, thin-lipped, well-coifed Roland (Christopher Duva) handles everything with ease. He buys Thomas Hardy novels (which, he announces, should be translated to English) and manages toxic waste; wherever there's money to be made, Roland is the suit in charge. He ought to be an easy snare for the soul-hungry Deb. He's certainly impressed enough with Deb's cool sneer. But when he invites her to dine with his wife, Jade (Fay Ann Lee), Deb makes a surprising and sexy play for Roland's wicked woman.

These are the kinds of people who snap open their cell phones to call the snooty restaurant kitchen from their table if the fish is not prepared to their liking. So it comes as no surprise that the dark-eyed Jade, who carries a tiny beaded pocketbook and struts around on strappy high-heeled sandals, is bad enough to slither up to Deb's come-on right in front of her husband.

It doesn't take long for poor, hard-hearted Deb to discover that corporate America has no soul to offer her. Everybody she meets is in the same boat as she: Every time Deb thinks she has struck a deal, it turns out she's scamming a scammer.

If not for these clever and often utterly bizarre reversals, Reddin's script would be just another semi-amusing and predictable slam at American business and California-style hedonism. There are also some weird characters in Reddin's world who shake up his story of corporate dirty dealings. There's Otto (Callum Keith-King), the muscled, robotic German who totes tulips and tosses grown men from high-rise windows with equal tenderness. Sidney (Reathel Bean) is an ex-spy/scientist from the '60s, hired by Disney for corporate experimentation. His wild hair sticks straight out from his head, and his massive eyeballs seem to spin from the effects of LSD, which he touts with Timothy Leary-like enthusiasm.

Kohlhaas proves to be a limber director, to the point of including a fine disco-dance number that comes out of far left field but makes perfect sense in this illogical world. The performances she pulls from her actors are often electric, filled with the sort of shocking rudeness that's devilishly funny to behold so long as it's not directed at you.

In the end, even though his script covers familiar ground -- there's a plot twist about the dangers of cell phones that's already so dated it will have to be changed should the play move to other venues -- Reddin handles it with such giddy and biting irreverence that he makes it fun to contemplate the obvious once more: that corporate America is soulless, and the people who run it are in league with the devil.