by Norm Foster
Theatre New Brunswick
A certain kind of show used to be described, in a certain kind of publicity, as "a Laff-a-Minit Riot." Norm Foster's new play, "Office Hours," which had its world premiere at Theatre New Brunswick Friday night, doesn't quite get a laugh a minute, but for long stretches it comes pretty close. When it comes to writing funny lines, Foster's up there with the best. The comparisons that come most readily to mind -- they've been made before -- are Neil Simon and Alan Ayckbourn.
On the evidence of this play, though, Foster may be aspiring to more exalted comparisons: it felt very much as though he'd been reading Tom Stoppard (and watching old Monty Python and "Beyond the Fringe" shows). In one scene, for instance, a 200-pound jockey is in tears over his dream of riding in the Kentucky Derby. I was reminded of the one-legged man auditioning for the role of Tarzan in the classic Peter Cook - Dudley Moore sketch.
And the byplay between Frank McAnulty, as the jockey with the shirt-stretching potbelly, and the boss who's firing him (played with wonderful straight sincerity byDavid Nairn), is almost as funny as Cook and Moore.
"If you were half the man your father was you wouldn't be firing me," whines the jockey.
"If you were half the man your father was," retorts the boss, "you'd be the right weight, and I wouldn't have to."
That's pretty much the way the evening goes. You may be wondering how, in the midst of a play called "Office Hours" that is billed as a satire on mores and morals in the modern 9-5 world, we happen to have a 200 pound jockey with a career crisis. You'd better ask someone else: I could feel the shape of this play leaking out of my memory as I walked to the parking lot.
It is, in fact, its fragmented and surreal structure that made me think of Tom Stoppard. "Office Hours" is comprised of six almost completely separable scenes, connected only by a few common events and references. Sixteen characters are played by the excellent five-member cast, who go through some of the most astonishing quick changes and character switches I've seen on a stage in some time.
In addition to the generally flawless comic timing (I especially admired Frank McAnulty and David Nairn), all the actors demonstrate a remarkable range and breadth of skill. All fifteen characters were so clearly delineated that there was never an instant when we were confused about who was playing who. In part, this is because the people are really caricatures rather than characters.
At a number of points, in fact, the script leaves the actors to cope with a one-trick part for far too long. In the second scene, for instance, at first I admired the way Nonnie Griffin projected appalled astonishment as she listened to her film-producer partner (David Nairn, as a superlatively repellent deal maker) taking seriously a proposal to make a movie which sounds exactly like Tarzan of the Apes. ("It's just Tarzan," she says at one point. "No, no," says the producer, "his name is Trevor.") But as the scene went on, and expressing this incredulity was the only thing she had to do, it became harder and harder -- and eventually impossible.
How disparate are the scenes? Well, one involves a newly appointed station manager (Elizabeth Goodyear, as the most terrifying boss I've seen this year) demoting an aging reporter (Frank McAnulty). ("The fact is, Warren, you're outside the demographic group we're skewing for.") In a particularly strange twist the reporter is stabbed by a one-armed man (David Hughes) whose life has been ruined because the tv studio switched two graphics.
The succeeding scene moves to the film producer's officer, where an alcoholic has-been director (Hughes, again) describes the plot of what seems to be Trevor of the Apes. Concluding the first act, in scene three an agent (McAnulty) is confronted by his wife (Goodyear) with a series of profoundly incriminating pictures and attempts ingeniously but futilely to wriggle out of the situation.
"That's easily explained," he says of one particularly graphic photo.
"Yes," the wife retorts. "I suppose it's the aftermath of some freak accident in which you were thrown pantless into the back seat of her car. Thank God her naked body was there to break your fall."
And that's only the first act. In Act Two, we begin with two parents (Griffin and Hughes) visiting their son (Nairn) in his law office, where he announces he's gay; continue with the firing of the 200 pound jockey, and conclude with a final scene in a psychiatrist's office, complete with Goodyear, in a one-trick role as a sexually frustrated psychiatrist, Nairn as a salesman, passing himself off as a patient into order to try to sell the psychiatrist a leather-bound "Week-at-a-Glance" calendar, and Hughes and Griffin continuing as the parents of the gay lawyer -- and of his brother, who is outside on the psychiatrist's window ledge, threatening to jump.
Each of these scenes is introduced by snatches of music which have utterly nothing to do with each other (ranging from The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" to the original cast recording of "I've got the horse right here" from "Guys and Dolls") as though to underline the fact that the scenes are fundamentally unrelated.
This sense of disconnection is underlined by the brilliant stagecraft. Two turntables allow scenes to be changed almost instantly, as if by magic, and this lack of transition itself, the instantaneous move from one office to a totally different one, from one set of characters to another entirely different set, intensifies the shock.
On the other hand, the offices themselves seemed at odds with the script: repeatedly described as impressive they actually seemed a bit tacky. When the jockey remarks on the boss's beautiful desk, for example, it wasn't clear whether we were supposed to think it was actually a nice desk, or to notice that it was really a $50 used-office-furniture special.
And finally, we're left wondering: do all these scenes really amount to a play? Even as cleverly linked together as they are, they leave the question of whether the evening really amounts to much more than a laff-a-minit riot lingering longer than the details or the characters.