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In 2005, according to a study by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, New York proved to be the safest big city in the United States. Since the 1980s, rates for homicide, rape, and other violent crimes have fallen precipitously. Adam Bock’s new play The Thugs concerns a statistical outlier, a law office in which, in the blunt words of a temp named Bart, “Someone’s killing people. In the building. Anyone have any gum?”
The recent spate of murders—which may be simply accidents or suicides—have excited and upset the temps of the ninth floor. Their hands tremble as they reach for their highlighters. They turn from their legal coding to cavil and gossip until shushed by the office manager. They so relish the shadowy possibility of danger and crime in their midst that they all but ignore the youngest temp, Daphne, who’s being abused by her boyfriend before their very eyes.
Bock’s writing has often had a musical quality. The Typographer’s Dream of 2003 featured interwoven solos and 2004’s Five Flights
borrowed the structure of a comic opera. But he’s never crafted a play so eerily orchestral. In his introduction to the script, Bock suggests “that the sounds and lighting in the office be treated both as background and as character.” Designers Ben Stanton (lights) and Robert Kaplowitz and Jeremy J. Lee (sound) and director Anne Kauffman are in keen agreement. The buzzing of the fluorescents, the clanking of pipes, the scratching of pencils, the ding and thrum of the elevator all create a sinister, layered atmosphere. Atop this, conversations churn and whirl and collide.
The Thugs‘s argument, that our culture’s fascination and saturation with violence allow us to disregard its more mundane appearances, may be a simple one. Bock all but proclaims it in the words of Mary, a hippie-ish temp who declares, “In this city there’s so much . . . and then TV and the news the news the news again and again and the papers and the Internet and I’m . . . we’re not supposed to hear all this. Everybody’s always always always on edge. But my heart is always in. It’s always in. In my throat.” But he proves it in an intricate, unsettling, and indelibly theatrical fashion. Though this latest play may concern temps, Bock deserves a more permanent place in New York theater.