At a brisk 55 minutes, Mike Bartlett's four-character one-act Bull is just the right length. A minute more and the heightened tension in this piece might cause spontaneous human combustion. It's that hot, that fierce. And that good. Second Thought Theatre's production of the brutish British drama, directed by Christie Vela upstairs at the Wyly Theatre, is paced like a prizefight, with a verbal knockout punch at the end that leaves an actor on the floor, heaving sobs, and the rest of us ringside glad we aren't down there with him.
Think The Apprentice gets nasty? It's a cotillion compared to dirty office politics played out in Bull, the 2013 follow-up to Bartlett's Cock, which Second Thought did last season. Where Cock explored the gamesmanship of the bedroom, Bull bores into the ugly goings-on in corporate middle management, with two underlings bent on ruining any chances of advancement for their less-polished colleague, whom they bully physically and psychologically.
The victim is Thomas (Ian Ferguson), a soft-bellied salesman up against handsome Tony (Alex Ross) and icily beautiful Isobel (Natalie Young). The three spar in a corporate anteroom designed by Second Thought company member Drew Wall to resemble a sleek, starkly lit arena with the audience viewing from above. They wait for a higher-up, Carter (Jeremy Schwartz), who will pick two for his team and fire the other.
Tony and Isobel conspire to make sure it's Thomas who gets the chop. They don't pass along the boss's request for his sales numbers (they've brought theirs in attractive blue folders) and they keep picking at Thomas' choice of wardrobe. Bit by vicious bit, they crack Thomas' already tenuous hold on self-confidence, pounding him with questions about his working class background and broken marriage. Isobel calls Thomas an "autistic penguin." Tony strips off his own shirt and exposes rock-hard abs, ordering Thomas to touch them, first with his hand, then his face.
From the bus he's been thrown under, Thomas is made to realize he's a human sacrifice to their ruthless ambition. When the boss shows up, things only gets worse.
What makes such hideous behavior worth watching in the Wyly's intimate sixth floor space is how well the actors do their jobs. Ferguson, Ross, Young and Schwartz have been shrewdly cast for their physical attributes, as well as expert acting skills.
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Usually pegged to play good guys, Ross, last seen wiggling his tush and tap-dancing on a white piano as Peter Allen in Uptown Players' Boy from Oz, is brilliantly evil in Bull as übermensch Tony. The way he struts in his shark-gray suit in front of Thomas, the way he exposes his torso ... even his hard nipples look menacing.
Young, back onstage after touring with Polyphonic Spree, is poured into a skintight black pencil dress and hot red suede high-heeled booties. Her lipstick matches the boots, as do her handbag, compact and lip gloss container. The swoop of her thick black eyeliner gives her character, Isobel, the look of a jungle cat ready to pounce on her prey. And that would be Thomas, played by Ferguson with appropriately nervous twitches and sighs. The acting arena here is so close to the audience, you can see his knuckles turn pink as he clenches his fists. When Isobel tears him down yet again - "You know you can get stuff for hair loss" - Ferguson's Thomas shrinks further into his cheap, wrinkled coat and tears drip down the bridge of his nose.
As the boss, Jeremy Schwartz is Trump-ian as a slick corporate jerk who compares "downsizing" to "culling the herd to save the species, by which I mean ... the rest of us." In their steely eyes, in how they draw breath and even in their British accents - pegged specifically for class and region and spoken to near-perfection, which is rare in Dallas theaters - these actors bear down hard in Bull and we profit from the experience.
Bull continues through March 14 at Second Thought Theatre, Wyly Theatre 6th floor, 2400 Flora St. Tickets, $25, at 2TT.co or 214-871-5000. (Pay-what-you-can on Monday, March 9.)