Five middle-aged men and one woman trapped in a room together is never a bad place to start. Set in a drab hotel conference space, Rhea Leman’s Gorilla concerns a group of corporate misfits who have been marked as poor performers and the straight-faced instructor, Lillian (the talented Jennifer Dorr White), assigned to put them in touch with their emotions. If they fail to cooperate, their boss (a gorgeous, chilly blonde named Thrasher) has threatened to make cuts.
Presented by the Scandinavian American Theater Company, the play offers a few humorous moments, such as when the eager-to-please oddball Lawrence (the very funny Khris Lewin) shares a slideshow of his wife giving birth (which is not shown to the audience). But Lillian’s awkward team-building exercises—holding hands, wearing blindfolds, and sharing dreams—rarely build to the intended laughs. When Robert, the oldest and most cantankerous member of the group, makes boorish comments (“Lillian is going to pour so much Martha Stewart syrup over us, our balls will be sticking together for weeks, for months, maybe even years”), they fail to rise above cliché.
The best one-room stories are often like kettles that grow hotter and angrier until the top blows off. Too bad that rather than focusing on the psychological tension within the group, Leman, in an effort to heighten the stakes, introduces offstage dramas that diffuse the pressure and let the air out of the room. Ultimately, so many outrageous secrets, lies, and betrayals are revealed that the story loses its urgency. When Lillian finally reveals who’s getting the ax, the moment elicits little more than a shrug.