A review of the new play “The Comparables,” by Laura Schellhardt at Seattle Repertory Theatre, a dark satire about women vying for corporate power.
The late author Maya Angelou once said she loved to see a girl “grab the world by the lapels” and “kick some ass.”
The ass-kicking, lapel-grabbing career women in Laura Schellhardt’s new play “The Comparables” may not be what she had in mind.
This trio of New Yorkers are ruthless, charmless and often cartoonish, as they maneuver and backstab in an upscale real-estate agency. And if the point of Schellhardt’s misfiring satire is that women can be as rotten and unethical in the pursuit of corporate power as men can be … Well, hey. Tell us something we didn’t already know.
By Laura Schellhardt. Through March 29, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; $16-$72 (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org).
“The Comparables,” commissioned by and premiering at Seattle Repertory Theatre, aims to meld dishy humor with a morality lesson in how merciless ambition can undermine sisterhood. But doing so by reviving toxic clichés about mean-gal behavior is bad jujitsu.
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Speaking of martial arts, the setting here is a sleek, high-rise office on steroids (designed by Carey Wong), with the high ceilings of an airplane hangar, and it’s run by an aikido devotee who makes the tyrannical boss in “The Devil Wears Prada” look like a marshmallow.
Bette (played by Linda Gehringer with uncustomary shrillness) is a middle-aged, brass-knuckles feminist mogul known for hiring and encouraging female employees. Judging by how she terrorizes her trusted associate Monica (Cheyenne Casebier), Bette subscribes to the Cruella de Vil school of mentorship.
Glossily coifed and prime-timed to host a new reality show (a woman-centric version of “The Apprentice”), shrewish Bette barks and belittles, peppering baffling mini-lectures on women in the workplace with aikido metaphors. She boasts of “eating” self-sabotaging women “for lunch,” yet spouts such Zen wisdom as “Live and let lapdance!”
Monica is stereotype No. 2: the mousy good soldier who has doggedly earned her turn at the top — as she confides into the narrative device of a recorded diary.
In case you don’t get Monica’s place in the corporate scheme, she repeatedly describes herself as a “load-bearing pillar” — e.g., sturdy, responsible and easily overlooked. (Maybe it’s her teeth, which Bette insists aren’t sharp enough for sharkhood.)
You can bet Monica is a little spooked by younger job applicant Iris (Keiko Green), a third female caricature of renown. Dressed to kill in pointy, spiked pumps and tight dominatrix business wear (via costume designer Frances Kenny), this steely barracuda doesn’t buy that “paying one’s dues” stuff.
Though fairly new in the biz, she’s already a self-entitled vixen coveting the executive office once the boss’s TV show takes off.
Two women vying to be the next top dog could be the setup for a nasty, politically retro, shrewdly plotted race to the top. Especially after Monica and Iris join forces to foil another potential rival.
Instead, Monica has a preposterous change of heart and strategy. (Put a woman in spike heels, and watch out). It’s followed up by that old crowd-pleaser, a hair-pulling, claws-bared catfight.
Even if you enjoy that sort of thing, the melee doesn’t pack much punch. There are isolated moments in Braden Abraham’s staging that do. But he and three capable actors can’t breathe much life or comic zest into one-dimensional roles and slogan-y dialogue, though Casebier strives to give Monica some blotchy integrity.
Audience reaction to “The Comparables” was mixed opening night, and the play may spark more discussion of the power and gender issues raised by the best-selling book “Lean In,” and by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (anticipated) bid for the U.S. presidency.
Yet it’s disappointing that one of the too-few new plays focused on women to be aired lately on a big regional stage didn’t strike me as either as funny, or timely, as I’d hoped. With women now steering the ship at less than 5 percent of major U.S. corporations, surely there’s riper material for feminist satire than a hackneyed gal-on-gal bout of office warfare.