Soulless Inc.

We're living in a world where Dilbert creator Scott Adams, supposed hero of the corporate grunt and Office Depot shill, has gone on the record with a major national newsmagazine with the comment that, ya know, downsizing may not be such a bad thing after all.

Actually, you could argue that Adams is right, if you step back and examine a few national trends like the gigantic increase in Byzantine corporate bureaucracy over the past two decades and how it's paralleled the upswing in chronic stress-related illnesses. Becoming a car mechanic or going to bartending school might not be such a bad idea after all.

But don't tell that to the poor schmuck who struggles not to be a drowning casualty in that "rising tide" that free-market advocates love to crow about. In a world where people who choose personal fulfillment and low pay over six figures and a miserable home life are ridiculed, individuals have poured more and more of their souls into high-level paper-pushing and management jobs that are soulless. It's an uncomfortable fit that breeds absurd monsters: Homo sapiens huddled like oysters in their cubicle shells, struggling to mold corporate grains of sand into pearls.

This is a spectacle that playwrights have been interested in for decades; the age of number-crunching is, after all, an extension of the Industrial Age, which long ago compelled artists to fire off warnings about the dehumanizing consequences of capitalist culture. Beckett, Ionesco, and Brecht revealed us all clinging to the sides of molehills, afraid to peer over the top and see the nothingness that's our reward but unable to stop killing ourselves from the climb. Harold Pinter addressed this scenario in a more explicitly bureaucratic context in The Hothouse, one of his earliest plays and a recent production by Dallas' 11th Street Theater Project. Although Pinter transplanted his critique of human hierarchical systems to a British mental institution, he resoundingly made the point that, in a system in which who's in charge can turn on a dime, the most innocuous situations and accidents are soaked in the sweat of the power play.

Below the Belt, Richard Dresser's inkpad-black comedy given a marvelous Southwestern premiere by Kitchen Dog Theatre, resembles The Hothouse in ways so numerous they're probably not coincidental. But Dresser has staged the rat race as a jailhouse activity, depicting the desperate maneuverings of three company men as caged rats who scurry in tight circles but are never provided a finish line by the nameless multinational corporation that employs them. Toward the middle of the play, which is set in an isolated compound next to a polluted river, one man asks another how he would rate their workplace as a workplace vs. as a prison. As a prison, the other replies, it's not so bad; as a workplace, it's intolerable. The solution is obvious: In order to feel better about things, he'd best consider himself a prisoner.

Problem is, this claustrophobic jail is his home as well as his office. Chronically well-meaning Dobbitt (Chris Carlos) has been reassigned to a remote region to work on a team of "checkers" that's overseen by the smug Merkin (James Kille), who has the mind-screw down to an art. Dobbitt must not only work with a sour, scornful partner named Hanrahan (Lynn Mathis), he must room with him as well. Connected to only vague memories of marital relationships outside this corporate compound, all three are simultaneously desperate to leave but addicted to the masochistic pleasure of being overlooked and circumvented by the powers that be. In order to get what they want, their allegiances shift. Unfortunately, what they want tends to shift too, depending on what they fear at any given moment.

Below the Belt is the most focussed, ferociously effective production Kitchen Dog has executed in a while. There's a lot of precocious talent scampering around in this puppy kennel of (mostly) Southern Methodist University-bred theater artists, but Kitchen Dog, which expanded into an ensemble last year, has spent much of the last two seasons struggling to find direction. Their large-cast shows, especially, have radiated more enthusiasm than precision; they're probably still in the process of discovering the strengths of each performer within the ensemble form. Solid performers have sometimes been left to dangle in roles for which they are ill suited.

The three actors in this show, however, are forceful in essaying these businessmen's half-hilarious, half-tragic dilemma. Chris Carlos is, as usual, utterly unaffected in his charm and sincerity, but he can swing into jaw-jutted aggression at a pause in dialogue. It's kind of irrelevant to compare local and national actors, but I can't shake images of a young Jack Lemmon when I see Carlos in action; he's not derivative, but seems to mine the same vein of good-natured frustration. Lynn Mathis, meanwhile, has harnessed the great comic-tragic mask that is his face as well as his rich, booming voice and directed them into the character rather than at the audience; his restraint makes this a terrific performance. James Kille, who has nicely rendered authority figures both sinister (The Holy Inquiry) and silly (The Hothouse), delivers the ambitious head checker with a cautiousness that doesn't always serve the antics. There are a couple of moments early on when his veer into comic desperation felt strained, lampoonish. Perhaps it's because he's a Kitchen Dog Theater outsider; in any case, he's more confident by the second act, especially during the office-party scene that opens it.

Below the Belt vividly reminds us that people who live at the office will come to crave corporate approval as proof of their own existence--a sad, paradoxical dependency in a system that's not designed to foster individual fulfillment. The politics of this desert-office compound are, in many ways, the same politics that operate in a family or a romance. But the rewards stop just outside the soul, and the terrors are absolute, unleavened by the mutual connection that every soul requires to survive. In a hermetically sealed office cubicle, no one can hear you scream.

Below the Belt runs through March 29. Call (214) 953-1055.

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Jimmy Fowler