“What We’re Up Against,” which The Company Theatre Group is currently presenting at the Hackensack Cultural Arts Center, has a vague title, so let me start by saying that the “we” refers to women and the thing they are up against in this play is workplace sexism. Playwright Theresa Rebeck — whose other works include “Mauritius,” “Omnium Gatherum” and “Seminar” — wrote it in 1992, but now, nearly 25 years later, it still seems as timely as ever.
The play, directed by Lou Scarpati (also The Company Theatre Group’s managing artistic director), begins with architecture firm colleagues Stu (Andrew Lionetti) and Ben (Bram Akcay) talking about a young woman who has joined the staff.
“What do we need another woman for?” asks Ben. “We have one of them.”
It turns out that the young woman, Eliza (Jennifer Robbins), has been given little to do since starting with the company, five or six months ago. She deals with this by solving an architectural problem, having to do with ducts at a shopping mall, that has been vexing Ben and another relatively new company hire, Weber (Larry Kadish) — and submitting it to Stu under Weber’s name.
Stu thinks the solution is great until he learns that Eliza came up with it, and suddenly the work itself becomes irrelevant, and all he cares about is that Eliza has (in his eyes) done such an outrageous thing.
It’s not about the work. “This is about power,” he says.
And Eliza clearly deserves more of it. Since she was able to solve the monumental duct problem (Ben spends much of the play moaning about it), we assume there is reason for her to be so supremely confident in herself. “My talent is as real as a tree,” she pronounces at one point. At another point, when she is told her work is impressive, she responds, smugly, “Yes it is.”
On a level playing field, she’d be running the company already. Stu drinks nonstop. Weber is more concerned with kissing up to his superiors than doing quality work. And the company’s other female employee, Janice (Andrea Prendamano), is happy to stay on the sidelines, a mere token, as long as she’s being paid.
Eliza acts more professionally and even dresses much better than anyone else here. Ben is the only one, besides Eliza, who seems to be even minimally competent.
Some of the play’s most subtle touches are its most powerful ones. For instance, in a scene in which Stu, Weber and Janice are having a meeting, Stu stays focused on Weber, as if Janice is invisible. (Janice tells Eliza later on that she underwent the same kind of freeze-out that Eliza is going through when she joined the company.)
I thought there was a problem with the Janice character, though. Prendamano’s broadly comic interpretation seemed to be imported from another play. Just look at the photo above to get an idea of the extreme contrast between the shrill, almost clownish Janice and the angry, determined Eliza.
And Ben’s transformation from the lout we see in the opening act to the much more sympathetic figure he is, later on, comes from out of nowhere. His brutally sexist comments didn’t seem concocted just to please Stu; he seemed to really believe what he was saying.
But mostly, ‘What We’re Up Against” rings true, with many wry laughs along the way.
“What We’re Up Against” is at the Hackensack Cultural Arts Center through Oct. 2; visit theatrecompany.biz.