Review: 'Core Values' at Square One Theatre

Maegan Clearwood

  • OnStage Associate Connecticut Critic

Square One Theatre Company deserves credit: its production of Core Values is certainly more interesting than a staff meeting. This doesn’t sound like particularly high praise, but mounting Steven Levenson’s sandpaper-dry comedy as anything beyond a literal replica of the plot’s tedious, migraine-inducing corporate weekend retreat is a challenge for any director.

Levenson’s play is something of a capitalistic No Exit, a purgatorial landscape populated by three employees of a dying travel agency (yes, it’s about a traveling agency, and yes, the play takes place in the 21st century) and their pathetically people-pleasing CEO. The narrative is a series of vignettes exploring the mundanity of the sales industry, awkward work relationships, and plain old day-to-day survival. Levenson is clearly trying to tap into something deeper – about the desire for human connection within an unfeeling capitalistic world, about the tensions that arise among the very real humans who occupy a dying industry in 2013 – but fails to accomplish the delicacy and empathy of such writers as Annie Baker, whose employment of silence and awkwardness and repetition reveal underlying human truths. Levenson’s story rarely provokes much insight into the deeper lives of his four characters beyond the basics of their proverbial water cooler conversations. We’re meant to sympathize with these characters, to eventually see beneath their various social quirks and discover something more profound, but rarely does the script excavate such truths, although it does offer the occasional snort-out-loud situational gag.

The production’s greatest asset is its design team, particularly Greg Fairbend and Robert Mastroni (scenic design) and Gaetana Grinder and Kerry Lambert (costume design), who craft a suffocating corporate world that, despite its flailing efforts, will clearly never catch up to the 21st century. The set is appropriately bland, with the occasional evidence of half-hearted zest (it looks something like an under-budget kindergarten classroom) to make the audience sympathize with the poor saps trapped there hour after hour after hour.  And Grinder and Lambert costume each of the coworkers with just enough color within their cheap-business-attire palates to provide us with a sense of identity within the conformity: old-hat employees Nancy and Todd aren’t trying anymore, newcomer Eliot is trying too hard, and CEO Richard is stuck a decade or two behind the times, as is his business.

Where the production suffers most is with tone and pacing. The play is clearly intended to be darkly comedic, but the performers are wildly unbalanced with their approaches to humor. Lynnette Victoria and David Victor as Eliot and Richard ham up their bits and jokes with desperate fervor, while Danielle Sultini  and Jim Buffone as Todd and Nancy rarely venture beyond the realm of understatement and eye-rolling. This divisiveness makes for an awkwardness that, while appropriate given the situation for these unfortunate characters, seeps into the audience, making it difficult to laugh at this squirm-inducing schadenfreude. Tom Holehan’s direction doesn’t do the script any favors, as the scenes lean into monotony as a source of wry humor, missing much-needed moments of manic desperation or farcical absurdity; it’s a one-note staging, despite ample opportunities in the admittedly tricky script to delve into varying emotional depths. What’s left is a production that evokes the occasional empathetic laugh on the part of audience members who have likely experienced such a corporate hell-scape themselves, but an overall too-realistic portrayal of utter boredom.

Square One also suffers from unfortunate timing. As the vignettes roll on, it becomes clear that Richard, the lonely, divorced CEO with a desire to be liked by his coworkers that’s to be rivaled only by the likes of The Office’s Michael Scott, is meant to be our protagonist. Despite his awkwardness and personal failures, the audience is supposed to sympathize with this downtrodden victim of the world. His desperation feeds into one particularly cringe-worthy moment when (warning: here be spoilers) he makes a move on his longtime coworker and confidante, Nancy; after some predictable tension between the two of them, Nancy approaches him to apologize and ask to move on, despite the obvious imbalance of power and agency in their relationship. This isn’t a surprising plot twist, nor is it one that’s uncommon in workplace narratives. Given the recent fervor over workplace harassment, however, and social media’s attempts to give voice to long-silenced survivors of assault, this beat in Richard’s arc does the production a major disservice; the play feels stale, a portrait of a tortured man who, as a more modern lens reveals, is less of a victim himself than a victimizer of others. Richard simply isn’t the kind of protagonist that audiences want to see right now.

Core Values has the occasional earned joke and speaks to some issues that feel relatively fresh (recent graduate Eliot has a frantic monologue about her failed attempts to find a job without experience, a woefully millennial topic), but for the most part, it’s a 2013 play that’s already dated itself. This is the kind of production that may come into its own as the performers find a better rhythm and comedic chemistry throughout the run, but for now, the onstage awkwardness feels unintentional, making for a rather squirmy viewing experience.