A review of Vincent Delaney's "99 Layoffs," an ACT Theatre-Radial Theater Project production that takes a comic look at the terminally un- and underemployed.

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Theater Review |

In times of high unemployment, many people take any work they can get, no matter how thankless it is.

But Orson and Louella, the lovable losers in Vincent Delaney’s rambunctiously entertaining screwball comedy “99 Layoffs,” would have trouble scoring decent jobs anytime. Both are single, in their 30s and still living with parents. Their skills are minimal (unless you count playing the autoharp and flutophone). Their college educations are wasted, their résumés are pathetic.

A cringingly awkward screw-up, Orson is a pink-slip magnet. Sweet but drowning in self-doubt, Louella is always in a frazzle.

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Neither fits into workplaces, though they try hard to fake it. And if “99 Layoffs” covered all the jobs they’ve bungled, this ACT Theatre-Radial Theater Project premiere would be a marathon.

But in 90 minutes, Delaney’s play gives us a broad satirical scamper through a labor market that’s brutal for qualified folk — and murder on nice, inept misfits. Our guides are two dauntless buffoons: rubber-faced K. Brian Neel and chameleonic Aimee Bruneau. They play Orson and Louella — and some bosses and co-workers that turn tedious and demeaning gigs into nightmares.

Staged with verve by David Gassner, “99 Layoffs” isn’t tied to the current recession. It expresses a continuing, Everyman/woman angst over dehumanized U.S. labor, as first spoofed by Charlie Chaplin in his film “Modern Times.”

Essentially a series of skits, connected by a scrappy chat room/waiting room courtship, “99 Layoffs” also projects video clips of on-the-street interviews onto Montana Tippett’s efficient set.

Some of these film anecdotes about gigs from hell are amusing. But they’re redundant: the play handily covers the same territory.

The attraction between Orson and Louella ignites too slowly. But Seattle native Delaney makes you care about them both. He also nails corporate mumbo-jumbo (a want ad requires low-level workers familiar with “leveraged manipulation of high level assets”), and the self-bashing vocabulary of the deeply insecure.

The ample laughs here are well-earned by an acting duo that goes way above and beyond the minimum job requirements. (Several performances were canceled, after Bruneau sustained an on-the-job injury.)

As the wildly clueless, perpetually flustered Orson (and later as the world’s most entitled 4-year old), Neel is so intense you fear he’ll blow a gasket — or drive you batty. But this go-for-broke pratfaller wins you over by crushing your defenses. (He’s like Dick Van Dyke on steroids.)

Bruneau mercifully balances him out with more nuanced shtick. As Louella she snags pity and laughter with a squinty gaze, a shrug, a defeated whimper. She’s also spot-on as a trash-talking doughnut hawker and a scarily seductive supervisor.

“99 Layoffs” may exaggerate worker discontent a bit for laughs. But anyone who’s ever baby-sat a brat, served fast food or sold a dicey product by phone, may well empathize with Orson and Louella — and root for them.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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