Review of ‘Suffering, Inc’ at Pony World Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts: Chekhov meets ‘The Office’ in surprisingly funny and moving play.
Offices are a special kind of hell. They demand that we sit, and stay, while the clock barely ticks; they evoke boredom, yearning, contempt for our colleagues and even desperation, all of which must be suppressed.
Office work is a game of make-believe in which we dig up a little paycheck for ourselves in the service of making a bigger paycheck for our bosses, all the while trying to forget the fact that those paychecks, big and small, could evaporate at any moment if — or when — the business goes sideways.
Meanwhile, what is lost? Sacrifices must be made: our time, our true ambitions, even (should things get extreme) our sanity.
Through July 28, Pony World Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Avenue, Seattle; $15-$20 (800-838-3006 or ponyworld.brownpapertickets.com).
That is the argument of “Suffering, Inc.,” a surprisingly funny and moving play by Pony World Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts. It’s set in a drab corporate office — but every word of “Suffering, Inc.” has been cut and pasted together from the plays of Anton Chekhov.
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“Suffering, Inc.” is set on the premises of “New Life Capital,” an investment firm where the seven employees begin phone pitches with: “Are you nervous? Worried? Depressed? You’ve got to scrape and save. Where has it all gone?” It sounds like a late-night infomercial, but that’s all Chekhov.
The characters sit at desks surrounded by pencils, binders, computers, phones, printers, a dying orchid. Corkboards with depressingly typical posters hang above them: pie charts, line charts, “Keep calm and label your food,” “Please wash your own cups & dishes” and, ominously, “No guns allowed.”
The employees of “New Life Capital” begin the play with gently gnawing problems, fretting over their work and their frustrating office relationships.
“Why destroy the forests?” asks the sincere, tender accountant Michael (played with gorgeously understated intensity by Rudy Roushdi) while he holds up a Starbucks coffee cup somebody gave him. “Just so they can buy the latest fashions with the profits they got from the criminal destruction of the forests!” (That bit is drawn from “Uncle Vanya.”)
In another scene, Natalie (Heather Persinger) chats with Ivan (Mark Fullerton) by the coffee machine. Natalie: “What’s new?” Ivan: “Nothing. Everything is old. And how are things with you?” Natalie: “How are things with me? I’m alive.” Ivan: “I’m sorry.”
The dialogue can sound slightly mannered, but it often has a very contemporary, albeit meta-theatrical, flow. The sometimes hilariously fretful characters could have come from “Mad Men,” “Glengarry Glen Ross” or “The Office.”
The ensemble is masterfully understated. “Suffering, Inc.” has a few moments of big emotion, but the jokes are all in eye-rolls, dismissive “uh-huh”s and snide “ooh-kay”s.
Persinger, as the frustrated writer Natalie, is particularly masterful at controlled emotion. Clearly, Natalie has a big inner life, but she’s only going to share a little bit with the rest of us — and she probably doesn’t care whether we know about the depths of her soul. Fullerton, who also does excellent work as Ivan, an employee fired just a year before he gets his pension who seems to be constantly reining in his depression and rage, putting on a good face and barely remaining civil to those around him.
In the spirit of Chekhov, “Suffering, Inc.” holds little nuggets of comedy — Sonia, played by Carrie Cates, creates a play-within-a-play by acting out a fantasy romance with a co-worker with binder-clip puppets — but ends with tragedy. Its characters age rapidly — Natalie starts the play in her 20s, but needs a cane by the final scene — the company financials go to hell, love is frustrated, a gun appears.
Chekhov provides frighteningly good material for portraying life in an office. From “The Seagull” to “The Cherry Orchard,” his characters obsess about financial trouble, frustrated love, and, as Pony World playwright and director Brendan Healy said, “that regret and yearning that tugs at us when we know something that we want but can’t get — how we use our time on this earth, and if we haven’t done what we wanted to do, what are we waiting for?”
Just before the lights went down on opening night, a man and woman, both drinking beer, were finishing a conversation about someone she knew who had been hit by a car. Even so, she said, “You don’t get to take time off work.”