Theater archives

Theresa Rebeck’s Workplace Satire “What We’re Up Against” Studies a Skirmish of the Sexes


An enjoyably sardonic comedy about sexism at the office, What We’re Up Against was written by Theresa Rebeck in 1992. But even as Rebeck’s play receives its overdue off-Broadway premiere now, some 25 years later, it’s a depressing certainty that the gender politics she mocks are still festering in many a workplace, although sexual harassment — the current issue of the day (and, at times, seemingly, the hour) — is not a factor in the story that swiftly unfolds here.

Eliza (Krysta Rodriguez) is a young, ambitious architect frustrated by being relegated to a cubbyhole with nothing significant to do at the boutique firm that hired her half a year previously. Stu (Damian Young), the incompetent office manager, and Weber (Skylar Astin), a glib associate, are snide about Eliza’s aspirations. Janice (Marg Helgenberger), the only other woman on the staff, counsels the angry, abrasive Eliza simply to be patient. Meanwhile, Ben (Jim Parrack), a bluff professional, tries to focus his bickering colleagues on the work itself — in particular, a knotty technical issue that is key to the expansion of a shopping mall.

As it so happens, Eliza has already figured out a solution to that problem, but her thinking is ignored by the more or less condescending (and privately derisive) men. For her part, Janice, a shrewd brownnoser, wants to be viewed by everyone as a team player. Eliza later extracts her revenge with a neat double-cross maneuver; ironically, the individual suffering the worst in this office skirmish of the sexes will be Janice, who is revealed to the audience as a smarmy betrayer of sisterhood. “Well, somebody had to play ball with these fuckers,” claims Janice, in her defense to Eliza. “It was the only way to stay in the room.… We held the fucking door open so you could waltz in and be equal.”

With its frequently humorous and sadly all-too-relevant look at sexist attitudes, What We’re Up Against is an apt programming choice for Women’s Project Theater, which here provides a well-tuned production at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre. Adrienne Campbell-Holt, the director, briskly stages the play within a two-level setting (designed by Narelle Sissons) that may lack a glass ceiling but often physically situates the men above the women.

Tersely composed in ten scenes, What We’re Up Against shows Rebeck’s dexterity as a smooth and entertaining storyteller. The assertive, foulmouthed Eliza, energized by Rodriguez’s cocky performance, is not a particularly likable protagonist, yet this smart woman’s discontent with her dismissive associates is made sufficiently clear to appreciate her final triumph. The other characters are sketchier beings given a semblance of reality by personable actors. Dressed by Tilly Grimes in early-Nineties-style florid neckties and sweater vests, Astin is amusing as an endlessly theorizing humbug, while Helgenberger’s Janice, a pencil usually thrust in her hairdo, is every inch the deceptively amenable co-worker. If some viewers might wish that the playwright had presented deeper characterizations and sharper satire here, anyone who has ever worked in an office can attest that paper cuts are awfully painful, too.

What We’re Up Against
McGinn/Cazale Theatre
2162 Broadway
Through December 3