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NY Theater Reviews

Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest/ Ph: Monique Carboni

CAGEY COWORKERS

By JESSICA BRANCH

Joel Drake Johnson's sharp examination of office tension tackles race and complex interpersonal dynamics.

As anyone who’s ever worked in an office knows, the atmosphere in that hothouse environment can get very uncomfortable, to put it mildly. Trapped together for eight-plus hours a day, coworkers can become unbearable, insidious, overpowering monsters of manipulation. Tiny slights and oversights grow into insurmountable barriers. And even the best-meant interactions can be fraught with unintended complications.
 
Set against Allen Moyer’s evocatively detailed doctor’s office set, the New Group’s latest production delves into the festering murk of petty office politics with an almost disturbing gusto. Ileen (Dianne Wiest) and Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins) work reception together in the office of the unctuous Dr. Williams (Darren Goldstein). As the play opens, Dr. Williams and Ileen are having an early-morning tete-a-tete. Initially, the good doctor seems simply to want to praise Ileen for her diligence and hard work. But her promotion to “office manager” is immediately followed by his complaints about Jaclyn’s attitude – and his request that Ileen start documenting Jaclyn’s faults. The wedge that this drives between the two coworkers, who seem to have had a congenial relationship up till now, sets into motion irrevocable consequences.
 
The latest work from Joel Drake Johnson (Tranquillity Woods, A Blameless Life), this expressionist psychological thriller traces the deteriorating relationship between sweet, soft-spoken Ileen and volatile, dissatisfied Jaclyn with insight and acuity. And in her directorial debut, Cynthia Nixon keeps the play-by-play breakdown of the relationship between the two women utterly riveting. Wiest’s wide-eyed, accommodating Ileen is pitch perfect, her good intentions and well-meaning efforts tinged with passive aggressiveness and fear, while Pinkins shines as the sometimes sullen, sometimes melodramatic Jaclyn, who senses she’s under attack and is grimly determined to hang on to her job, whatever it takes.
 
Race is a major factor in this conflict: a motive, a weapon, an excuse, but never an answer. It may be the reason Dr. Williams is so uncomfortable around Jaclyn; it could well be something Jaclyn plays up as she narrates tales of her neighborhood to amuse Ileen. And it’s certainly on Jaclyn’s mind as she responds to the casual racism of people she encounters—like an elderly patient named Rose (Patricia Conolly)—and starts gaslighting Ileen. But as important a role as race plays, the playwright’s handling of it can sometimes be too heavy-handed. Would Rose really have responded to Jaclyn’s apology for treating her brusquely with, “My son thinks it’s in your culture to act the way you did – something about your way to get revenge for slavery”? And is Jaclyn’s explanation, delayed until the end of the play, about who the “Rasheeda” of the title is really even necessary at that point?
 
The play’s real strength is not so much in its reasoning about race as in its observation – its expressionist rendering of the psychological reality of the petty warfare in this No-Exit workplace. That’s sharp, subtle and ever-shifting. Alliances are never certain and actions are double-edged, and neither woman is fully right or fully wrong, completely sympathetic or otherwise. In the hands of these two accomplished actresses, the conflict is spellbinding – as impossible to turn away from as it is to foresee its outcome.