In “The Promotion,” playwright Joe Giovannetti uses a simple situation — two friends, who sell insurance for the same company, are vying for the same promotion, and only one can get it — to explore contemporary issues of racism, sexism, workplace harassment and corporate greed. Also timeless issues, including the nature of friendship, and temptation.
That may sound like a lot, and it is. But it works: “The Promotion,” currently being presented at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, is an absorbing 90-minute play that may not say anything new or profound about all of the above, but still cuts deep, with some tension-relieving humor along the way.
“The Promotion” had its world premiere at NJ Rep in March 2020, but the run was cut short because of the pandemic. (I actually saw it then, but the cancellation was announced before I could write my review.) The same director, Evan Bergman, is at the helm, and three of the same four actors are in the cast again. Giovannetti has also made some modifications to the script.
It’s hard for me to zero in on why, since that first review never was written, but the play had a bigger emotional impact on me the second time around.
Trish (Sophia Parola) and Josh (John Caliendo) are the two main characters. They’re both competitive by nature, but value their friendship to each other as well. She’s single, with an elderly mother who requires a lot of attention. He’s married, with a young son. They both work hard, and feel under pressure to provide for their loved ones. (The pay at the company they work for is okay, but nothing great.)
But then the no-nonsense, high-strung office manager Lois (Anja Lee, the “new” cast member in this production) calls them in for meetings with the boss (unseen by the audience), one at a time. They are both told that the regional vice president will be retiring.
They both want this job, badly. It comes with a six-figure salary and, perhaps more importantly, would offer a certain amount of safety from being fired when the company is taken over by another, bigger one (which is rumored to be happening soon).
Both Trish and Josh are confident that they are the leading candidate. And both are aware that the other wants the job, too. It’s an uncomfortable situation. But they vow to remain friends.
It may not be a fair fight, though. It turns out that the boss, in his meeting with Josh, gave him a lead on a potential new client, Hank (Phillip Clark). Hank is the CEO of a large company; if Josh can win Hank over and get his business, that could clinch the promotion for him. Trish is not told about this immediately, but eventually finds out.
The possibility is brought up that Josh is being given the lead as compensation for NOT getting the promotion. But Trish thinks it’s more likely that the system is simply working against her: That as a Black woman, she is not taken as seriously as the white man who shares an office with her and who is not, in any way, outperforming her.
Giovannetti wisely adds complications that keep the play from being a simple parable about oppression with a clear-cut hero and villain. Trish is the more sympathetic of the two main characters, but as the plot progresses, she makes an unethical move. (That’s the way I saw it, at least; others may disagree.) Josh then over-reacts and asserts his power in a way that’s really ugly.
You’re rooting for them to be civil with each other. And that doesn’t seem to be outside the realm of possibility. But — overstressed, underpaid, angry and impulsive — they can’t manage that, and the story takes a disturbing turn.
As I said, “The Promotion” is about much more than a stupid regional vice president job, and who is lucky enough to get it.
New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch presents “The Promotion” through Feb. 20. Visit njrep.org.
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