Soulless corporations take the heat at CPT

Nasty Business 

Soulless corporations take the heat at CPT

As you may have noticed, the Koch brothers' corporatizing of America continues at a breakneck pace. Mega-entities like General Electric pay less in annual taxes than you or I, while their Fortune 500 brethren encourage state governments to strip "fat cat" public employees of their union rights. This situation leaves your average contemporary playwright with a problem: How do you skewer a corporate community that is so obviously over-the-top already?

In Fever/Dream, seen in its final preview performance at Cleveland Public Theatre, author Sheila Callaghan is dead-set on taking roundhouse whacks at the rapacious monstrosities that corporations in this country have become. And she hits her mark quite often, thanks to a spirited CPT production helmed by Beth Wood.

But due to some not-terribly-original takes on the business environment — especially given the fresh abuses we all know about — this work (which debuted in 2009 in Washington, D.C.) at times feels strangely dated.

Callaghan has reimagined another play, Pedro Calderon de la Barca's Life Is a Dream. The original featured a king who imprisons his son in a dungeon, claiming the infant died in childbirth. In Callaghan's version, the king is the CEO of Basil Enterprises and has kept his son chained in the basement, answering customer service phone calls.

The opening scene and premise is hilarious, with the now-grown son Segis wearing a unabomber beard, chained to his desk and apparently exuding a foul stench. He fields the incoming requests with (obviously) forced politeness. But that delicious scene sets a high bar that the remainder of the show struggles to surpass.

With the company failing (what, it's not too big to fail?), boss man Bill Basil decides to anoint the incarcerated Segis as his top-floor heir, cleaning him up and plopping him in the catbird seat. From there, Segis unravels in a dazzling flurry of directives, misinterpreting phrases he has read about such as "bulldozing the competition" and "whipping employees into shape." He enacts them literally, to disastrous effect.

Segis has a star-crossed tenure in other ways. Two of Basil's top lieutenants, Stella Strong and Aston Martin, share sexy texts, shown on two video screens, and are in line to occupy the top spot. So they are eager to bring Segis down. In addition, a bike messenger named Rose has personal issues with Aston and intends to destroy the company with a secret she possesses. Meanwhile, her ex-hanger-on Claire quickly becomes an overly obedient office go-fer who adds additional complications.

It's a crowded story, but director Wood manages it all with some dazzling bursts of imagination. A four-person cadre of Blackberry-equipped "associates" also plays other roles (their rendition of a human fax machine is a stitch). Another four-pack of "accountants" is always at the beck and call of whoever is the CEO, moving in robotic lockstep to the demands from on high.

As Segis, Christian Prentice is an unguided missile of comic invention, throwing himself onto and off of almost every surface as he explodes in a rush of carnal corporate excess. And when he is re-incarcerated in the basement, told that his failed stint in the executive suite was just a dream, his bewilderment is amusingly pathetic.

Laurel Johnson creates white-collar sparks as the über-bitch Stella, and Nathan Ramos in the role of Aston manages to balance groveling to his superiors with a sense of his own ladder-climbing purpose. Robert Hawkes does what he can with the underwritten role of Bill Basil, who is beset by demons and tremors that are never fully explored.

A subplot involving the relationship between Aston and Rose doesn't feel particularly credible, but Faye Hargate keeps her focus, functioning as a reliable centerpiece for the show. Unfortunately, Claire is overplayed to an egregious extent by Annie Hickey, collapsing much of the humor inherent in her role by making every word and gesture a grandiose event.

Romping up and down Trad A Burns' awesome four-level, pyramid-shaped set, the 15-member cast never flags for an instant. But their words are frequently garbled in attempts to keep the pace frenetic. Moreover, the whole idea of lampooning automatons in a corporate setting feels tired and currently off point. (At this time, many among the nation's unemployed masses would dearly love getting a regular paycheck in return for being anybody's drone.)

Toward the end, the associates eventually conspire with Segis for an ultimate assault on the company. And this is where Wood, who has been so disciplined with her approach to this hyped-up material, finally comes unglued. The free-for-all chaos ensuing at Bill's retirement party, at least as performed, does the play no favors and turns the scalpel of parody into a sledgehammer.

It's a daunting production, and the pacing, which is at times too furious and at other moments too sedentary, will likely smooth out. Though it's imperfect, this is a play that, at least to some extent, reveals the craven sneer lurking under the smiley face of many a corporation. And that's a good thing.

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