Corporation of the absurd

Undermain looks at the culture of business through a fun-house mirror

Anyone with even a passing interest in the culture of corporate America will enjoy Undermain Theatre's ongoing production of Tiny Dimes. Playwright Peter Mattei, a founding member of Cucaracha Theatre in New York, has created an absurdist comedy that makes complete sense and none at all, a nonnarrative piece that follows a humorous, if eventually somewhat tiresome, formula.

Throughout the piece, which is well-directed by Undermain treasure Bruce DuBose, five executives are engaged in some vague powwow. It's never quite clear what they do for a living, however. Loosely, we can guess it involves marketing and finance, probably some service industry connected to the mysterious Infobahn.

Like the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, from Dickens' Bleak House (in which no one, defendant or plaintiff, can remember what the lawsuit is about), none of the participants in this all-important board meeting can remember what significant venture they're meeting to discuss.

The gang hangs out in a boardroom that could be in a manse or office building. Like most meetings, it involves a lot of mysterious papers, folders, and physical posturing, and interruptions like, "the best silk comes from Thailand, the best coffee comes from Zimbabwe..."--a riff performed by Katherine Owens in an ecstatic, nearly fugue state. Other discussions include the best seafood place in town and what a good address Lavery Road is, unless the city (presumably New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles) builds that floating prison they keep talking about. When the group gets down to brass tacks, which is rare, they speak only in sports and war metaphors before losing focus and trailing off once again.

They are suitably boxed into a marvelous set designed by Robert Wynn. He places the office behind a scrim attached to stone pillars on three sides, and in the Undermain's basement theater the effect is that of a bomb shelter. African masks adorn the walls, and during periods of mayhem, an eerie light appears under the door. The light is so blinding it seems either alien or spiritual, as if it is trying to lead these executives out of red tape, red lining, and red herrings and into a higher, out-of-body realm. But no one here can seem to find the way out, even when the door is open.

The architecture of the play relies on simple repetition. Several episodes of "brainstorming" devolve from idea sessions full of corporatese and battle metaphors to childish, hilarious displays of one-upmanship and ugly bouts of paranoia. Each of these sessions is framed by three motifs: the screaming expletives of a creative business guru (Robert Erwin as David) complete with receding hairline and tiny grey ponytail; a musical chairs routine gone amok that makes the boardroom reminiscent of the game room in a psych ward; and the strains of motivational tapes that seem to be piped in from heaven.

The biggest problem with Tiny Dimes is its own predictable structure. Too soon you begin to anticipate the screams, the reshuffling of bodies, paper, and furniture, and the daily affirmations from a voice that sounds like Jack Handey's from "Deep Thoughts" on "Saturday Night Live." About an hour or more into it (there's no intermission) you realize it's not going anywhere particular, real or imaginary.

Of course Mattei could be making a point, because most corporate meetings don't go anywhere, real or imaginary. The humor does build as the characters lose their business facades and their foibles are exposed. Katherine Owens is a divine Sarah, a power siren in a tailored violet suit given to random bouts of crying and overt efforts at seduction. Neil (Dennis Millegan), whom you may remember as the dog in Mad Forest, downs aspirin for his headache with drunken swigs from a bottle of 158-year-old Scotch. He has a sometimes fond, sometimes irritable, repartee with Richard, played by Tom Lenaghen. (Lenaghen has the lines and achieves the delivery a comic actor lives for, and the audience appreciates him. His work as a stand-up comedian at clubs and colleges does not go to waste here.) And though each of the five characters shows some paranoia ("What do you mean by that?"), Jane (Lisa Lee Schmidt) is efficient, officious, and nearly certifiable ("Do you hear those voices in here?").

This team spewing endless streams of industrial-psych mumbo-jumbo keeps us entertained, even as Tiny Dimes begins to seem like it's just loose change. Erwin as David walks the conference room as others sit, one hand behind his back and the other massaging one of those stress-reliever toys made of something like pink Play-doh. He stares at the African masks in the most intimidating manner. Three times over the course of Tiny Dimes he states, "I have an announcement to make. I'm going to leave the firm." He is leaving to be an elementary school teacher (and teach marketing), to open a zoo (hire an actuarial firm to start it up), and finally, to open a well-promoted arts colony.

Owens as Sarah, meanwhile, crosses and uncrosses her shapely legs, struts with hands on hips, and flaunts her plunging neckline. Her facial expressions vary fast and wildly from cool to bitchy to vampy to melancholy in a matter of minutes as the meeting goes along its bumpy road.

Mattei uses modern office equipment to illustrate the chaos of this seminar without meaning, this event without end. Each time the phone rings, it throws the group into a tizzy. You can see them thinking: "If I answer it, will I be admitting I'm less important? I'll let someone else answer it," and so on, until the phone rings a dozen times. Anything can paralyze these folks as they try to second-guess each other and plot a course of action for something as simple as answering the phone.

Often the use of props is surreal. At one point Erwin walks a broken cellular phone as if it is a dog on a leash, and Owens follows it hungrily like a race horse following a carrot or a dog following a bone. Toward the end of the meeting, the general air of deterioration and lack of fresh thought is marked by Lenaghen and Millegan playing table hockey across the faux marble conference table with rolled-up paper as pucks and cellular phones as the goal lines. Exhaustion sets in, and finally there is little energy left to discern interior motives or exchange barbs.

Mattei, who has also written for the soap opera "All My Children" and Nickelodeon, has a way with words and a flair for comedy. He has obviously spent time with some of these corporate types, clawing up the unsteady ladders of firms and agencies held by holding companies and limited partnerships. Yet all these antics aren't quite enough to sustain an evening, because once the audience gets into the groove we are never really shocked or surprised. Mattei needs to break out of his own rut of a structure for this send-up of corporate America to be cathartic and for Tiny Dimes to succeed.

Tiny Dimes runs through February 25. For ticket information, call the Undermain Theatre Box Office at 747-5515.

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