Arts & Events

Theater Review: Reduction of Force--Central Works at the Berkeley City Club

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday August 16, 2011 - 09:15:00 PM

"My name is Anita, and I am an executive secretary. Hi everybody!" Jan Zvaifler opens Central Works' collaborative premiere of Patricia Milton's Reduction in Force, with Anita's avowal of her devotion to her career in the personal financials industry--and though she agrees the system is corrupt, she "could never join" critics of it "in any actionable way.' But the crunch is on in the world of finance--and the fun, at least for us spectators, is just beginning ... 

A seasoned secretary and single mother, Anita finds her head on the block when her young and "hot" boss, Gabby Deeds (Kendra Lee Oberhauser), lets it be known--through a slip of the tongue while deciding whether or not to invest in tropical storm futures and the resultant human misery--that she's considering taking on as a "mentee" ("I'm the mentor; you're the mentee!") Mitch Brinkman (John Patrick Moore), a young "executive runner," or errand boy to another exec Gabby's had an affair with (playing "Tough Cop," complete with cuffs), an avowed ass-kisser ("one of my most vibrant assets") and two-faced maneuverer. An eccentric dance, or three-legged race, begins at once as each endeavors to convince mercurial Gabby of their greater merits--and the other's obvious debits--while from the corridor outside, shrieks, weeping and angry sputtering signal the passage of former employees being escorted out of the building by security, as a crowd of spurned job hunters make their presence known from without ... 

Patricia Milton, in collaboration with director Gary Graves, the cast and crew, has come up with a farce--turning into a frenetic doorslammer--with a barrage of satiric dialogue and one-liners ("... the huge fraud settlements to pay when a Congressman gets caught with a cash bribe in his freezer--where does that come from?"), based partly on her own "downsizing" experience, partly on a canny resume' of statements and stories about the fiscal slide in general. Icarus, Gabby's firm, gets its name from the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Report of last February: "Too many of these [financial] institutions acted recklessly, taking on too much risk, with too little capital ... Like Icarus, they never feared flying ever closer to the sun." 

It's fast and funny, with constant hilarious reversals. Jan Zvaifler turns in yet another fine performance, this time in a kind of role--sort of a straight-woman at times to the unconscious burlesque comedians around her--different from much that she's played with the company she co-founded. John Patrick Moore's perfect as her adversary and co-dependent; deadpanning lies, exaggerations and the absurd truth is Mitch's m. o. ... Revealing he has an MFA, not an MBA, that he's an actor (!), reverses Anita's attack engines. She smiles. "Have I seen you in anything?" No feature films, just something as obscure as porn--corporate training industrials. 

Kendra Lee Oberhauser, as the brassy, hellbent-for-leather (not to mention handcuffs) Gabby, is also in top form, gleefully hypocritical, willing to turn on a dime, leaving whoever she promised whatever to in the dust ... self-described bold, predatory even, yet ultimately clueless. 

As ever, Central Works milks the intimate environs of the City Club where they've been resident for years, every square inch of its floor space creatively utilized by the characters in their manic leapfrogging for position, one-upmanship and earbending. And--as usual--Gregory Scharpen's sound design adds much to that environment, in this case translating the old card parlor into the ethereal office suites of executive scheming and wheeling-dealing. 

Two more weekends remain to catch the show. Central Works has always staged new plays, collaboratively produced, with genuine artistic values--often greater than many of the bigger, ostensibly professional theaters--in an intimate setting at the most reasonable prices for audiences. And they're at the height of their powers, never more accomplished, never more entertaining. 

Central Works, Reduction in Force--Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p. m., Sunday at 5 through August 28, Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (near Bowditch), $24 (online), sliding scale at the door: $25-$14. 558-1381;