Office banter is both frivolous and ominous in dystopian ‘The Hummingbirds’ at NJ Rep

hummingbirds review

PHOTOS BY ANDREA PHOX PHOTOGRAPHY

Michael Irvin Pollard and Sophia Lucia Parola co-star in “The Hummingbirds” at NJ Rep in Long Branch.

“The Hummingbirds,” a play by Garret Jon Groenveld that is currently making its United States premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, is subtitled “A Comedy of Menace.”

I’m not sure about the “comedy” part: While there is certainly quite a bit of humor in it, I wouldn’t ultimately classify it as a comedy. But there isn’t much question about the “menace.” Though the play’s Act 1 sometimes makes it seem like a genial, futuristic workplace comedy, in its Act 2, Groenveld’s dystopian, Orwellian vision comes sharply into focus. This is an absorbing and, ultimately, quite chilling play.

The play’s only two actors, Michael Irvin Pollard and Sophia Lucia Parola, portray co-workers at Room 347 of the Unemployment Bureau, in an unnamed country. Their names are never uttered — we eventually learn that they don’t even know each other’s names — and while Pollard’s character has a spouse, that spouse is only mentioned, by him or Parola’s character, as “the spouse.” Similarly, a restaurant is spoken of as an “entrée establishment” and strippers are described, euphemistically, as “a body for the people.”

Sophia Lucia Parola in “The Hummingbirds.”

Wearing matching gray outfits, the co-workers meet with a series of unemployed people, informing them of their new jobs, ranging from wig maker to sidewalk blood scrubber (there is a lot of terrorism in the future Groenveld creates). The unemployed people are never seen or heard: Pollard and Parola’s characters do all the talking, chattering away among themselves and sometimes making silly puns on the unemployed’s names. Mr. Green is told, “The outlook, for you, is verdant”; Mr. Decanter is informed, “We’ll need to pore over your file.”

Also, they frequently repeat, in more of a deadpan way than a cheerful one, the corporate-sounding slogan, “If you can walk, you can work.”

The two actors do a great job in these sessions, peppering the unemployed with questions in a superficially friendly but also supercilious way. Despite the unsettling quality of the plot, Groenveld’s writing, delivered expertly by the two actors, has a light, playful, almost musical quality that exerts a hypnotic force of its own.

During the two characters’ joyless lunchtime, the bouncy “The Girl From Ipanema” plays, incongruously, in the background. They start to talk sympathetically about the unemployed but then stop themselves, worrying about “sympathy interfering with efficiency and all that.”

Before going to bed in their own living spaces, they check in, by computer, with someone who is keeping tabs on virtually everything they do. (We also learn that whoever is monitoring them is about being monitored; two of the jobs that are given out, in the course of the play, are “End of Day Report Observer” and “Observer of End of Day Report Observer.”) In this world, books have to be pre-approved by the government, and dancing may require a license. And two bells ring, every night, to enforce a kind of curfew. The first is a warning; by the time the second one is heard, you’ve got to be in bed.

Michael Irvin Pollard in “The Hummingbirds.”

It becomes clear by her end-of-day reports in Act 1 that Parola’s character, in addition to doing her job, is spying on Pollard’s character. This leads to the more sinister developments in Act 2, though we never know for sure if her suspicions about him are justified.

These characters may have done inexcusable things. But due to the sensitivity of Groenveld’s writing — as well as the sharp, subtle guidance of the play’s director, SuzAnne Barabas (who is also NJ Rep’s artistic director) — they never lose their humanity.

Of the play’s other creative contributors, designer Jessica Parks deserves special praise for creating a set that evokes the perfect mood. The office is a kind of deep, dark cave, painted in institutional green and lined with beat-up file cabinets, but also featuring some sleek neon stripes that help make it clear that this is indeed the future, and not just some depressing representation of the present.

Though, certainly, enough of the action strikes such a real, painful chord that you can’t escape the feeling that Groenveld isn’t, perhaps, looking all that far into the future.

New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch will present “The Hummingbirds” through Aug. 28. Visit njrep.org.

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