In the office lexicon, are there words more demoralizing than “corporate retreat”? Not for employees of Skyline Travel, the decaying agency at the center of Steven Levenson’s workplace comedy Core Values. In headier times the company would take its semiannual retreat in Miami, but workers now hole up in their own dismal conference room for a weekend of target-setting and trust falls. The tropical decorations CEO Richard (the sterling Reed Birney) tacks to the walls only add to the gloom. Richard seems to know this. “We usually book the meeting space out at the Hampton Inn,” he tells a new hire, waxing nostalgic. “At the Hampton Inn, they give you free coffee. Free cookies.” Suffice it to say, there are no cookies here. Or even coffee cups.
Levenson’s script, skillfully directed by Carolyn Cantor, is a series of short, sharp scenes meant to skewer workplace mores while creating sympathy for these beleaguered leisure experts. It succeeds admirably in generating laughs, yet is perhaps too slight to provoke real emotional engagement with its characters, however finely the actors play them. A late scene reminds us that in switching from a manufacturing industry to a service one, some sense of worth or integrity has vanished, but this bit of Marxism-lite doesn’t lend the play the gravitas Levenson clearly desires. (He’ll have another go at the corporate world when his The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin begins performances at the Roundabout on May 31.)
So why not simply enjoy Core Values for its jokes and excellent acting, particularly Birney, as a business owner working to remain cheerful in the face of economic disaster, and Susan Keletchi Watson, as his longtime employee whose loyalty is at odds with her ambition. And while rushing from your office to another one (albeit on the Ars Nova stage) may seem uncomfortably like a busman’s holiday, at least you can console yourself that your own workplace is likely more functional and less doomed than this one. Yours probably even has coffee cups.