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How What We're Up Against examines office sexism
The timing of Theresa Rebeck's What We're Up Against is uncanny. Although the dark comedy about a woman fighting for her due in an overwhelmingly male workplace was written in 1992, it's enjoying a belated New York premiere at a moment when stories about men abusing their power are breaking almost daily. Of course the #MeToo movement hadn't yet taken off when director Adrienne Campbell-Holt and Rebeck were approached about mounting the show at WP Theater (formerly known as Women's Project Theater). But that just confirms that while these issues are currently front-page news, they've been festering for years.
"The crazy timeliness, especially with Weinstein and the other cases, it's been both depressing but useful to have a place to channel those feelings and have an organized community to engage with every day for the past month," says Campbell-Holt. Although she notes that none of the interactions in What We're Up Against rise to a criminal level, "we really played with a lot of behavior that felt like it was reflecting the beginnings of sexual harassment in the workplace: the ways in which the men get in the women's spaces, the sort of troll-like shadowing behavior that we saw in the presidential debate last fall. I am interested in people thinking about that, being aware of it even though it's not explicit in the script."
At an architecture firm in the early '90s, Eliza (Krysta Rodriguez) just can't get ahead. Talented, smart, and outspoken, she's angry that manager Stu (Damian Yong) refuses to put her on any projects, especially since the garrulous new guy, Weber (Skylar Astin), is already part of the old boys' club. So she sets out to prove her worth, but engages in some pretty underhanded tactics in the process, including throwing her sole female colleague (Marg Helgenberger) under the bus.
This is the first play that Rodriguez, best known for her work in Broadway musicals, has ever done, and she relishes playing a strong woman who's no saint. "I had been wanting to do a play for a decade, no lie," she says. "I didn't know anything about the play when I got the call. I scrolled through the script to see where I came in, and my first line is a curse word. And then my second line is an even worse curse word. And then my third line is a string of curse words. I didn't even need to read the rest of the play: I said yes."
Rebeck and Campbell-Holt have been working together regularly since 2012, when the latter served as assistant director on the playwright's Dead Accounts on Broadway. The two have collaborated multiple times since then, mostly on new plays (The Nest at the Denver Center, Downstairs at the Dorset Theatre Festival), which is why they approached What We're Up Against as a revisal rather than a revival. "I am interested in developing work and getting in on the ground floor in terms of collaborating," says Campbell-Holt, whose Brooklyn-based theatre company Colt Coeur specializes in new plays. "In many ways it felt like we were doing a new show. This version of What We're Up Against is very different from anything that existed before."
Rodriguez concurs. "If we had ideas or thoughts, they were discussed," she says. "We didn't have free rein, but we all collaborated. Theresa would listen to us. I heard from somebody that the version they had seen years ago ended three scenes before ours does!"
Perhaps the play's most radical aspect is that it's not just some feminist polemic. No one comes off as a hero, not even Eliza. While the guys are condescending, misogynistic, mansplaining jerks, the women are capable of terrible conduct, too. "Nobody's really right in any of these scenarios," Rodriguez says. "As much as you want to root for Eliza because she's the underdog and she's this straight-talking woman, she behaves badly and has to be called to task on that. We don't follow Eliza's rise to herodom; we follow a winding, self-serving road with motives for everybody."
Such a complicated view of workplace gender politics is bound to push buttons, especially in our polarized #hashtag culture. But as long as men, by and large, hold the power in society, women will continue to be stuck with the tricky task of navigating the patriarchy. "It's not just the really aggressive predatory stuff," Rodriguez says. "It's the little ways you get knocked down and kept in your place and don't feel like you have anywhere to go. Abuse can happen in many forms."
From November 13 to 20, WP Theater and Colt Coeur are also presenting the Parity Plays Festival reading series, celebrating the work of female and trans playwrights and directors. Tickets are free and can be reserved online.
Top image: Marg Helgenberger and Krysta Rodriguez in What We're Up Against. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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