Those who can’t get enough of cubicles, memos and water coolers during the work week will be excited to learn of Core Values and Bull, two new Off Broadway productions about the peaks and valleys (but mostly valleys) of nine-to-five living. In ways quiet and vicious, these dramadies remind us that bloodlust and existential agony don’t check themselves at the office door; no, that’s where they parade in, take up shop, and feel right at home.
Ars Nova’s Core Values, by Steven Levenson and directed by Carolyn Cantor, gets at papercut drama with the kind of funny/sad mumblecorp-speak popularized by Annie Baker. When a sad sack loser-boss (Reed Birney) summons his meager travel agency staff for an in-house weekend “retreat,” trust falls and brainstorming sessions don’t quite have the desired effects, and takeout Dunkin’ Donuts can’t sugarcoat the sense of loss present in each character’s life. In Mr. Levenson’s world, the office is the nexus of politely disguised melancholia and cringey, awkward humor, sort of like TVs “The Office” with a bigger dollop of ache.
Bull makes no such stab at delicacy. This companion piece to last year’s Cock, also by Mike Bartlett, is all knives, all the time. The setup: In a nightmare of a conference room, several yopros ream out a weaker third member while they wait for a client. We’re talking verbal annihilation, intimidation and, yes, physical violence. The proceedings are deliberately over-the-top—by making caricatures out of his characters, Bartlett seems to be drawing focus to the Darwinian impulses we might normally surpress. All it takes is a little rattling, and zing—the fangs are be bared, he seems to say. Soutra Gilmour‘s set, an in-the-round affair meant to look rather like a bull ring, makes the metaphor real and nails down the production’s point: people in suits are latter-day gladiators. (The show, by the way, is directed by Claire Lizzimore at 59E59.)
I found Core Values to be the more persuasive and involving of the plays; the humorous sympathy Mr. Levenson lends his all-too-human characters is as endearing as Bull’s high style fracas is distancing. Then again, maybe I’ve worked in too many nice people offices. Perhaps the hounds of Bull are real, are out there, and I’ve simply never crossed their paths…
Photos by Sara Krulwich