Sexism and Spunk Duel Masterfully on Stage at DC’s Keegan Theatre

Tucked away on a quiet street in Dupont Circle, Washington’s Keegan Theatre is easy to miss. Keegan produces classic and contemporary plays and musicals that, in the company’s own words, “put people out there on the stark edges of life”—works, in short, that “explore the human condition.” Keegan manages to offer tickets at affordable prices while creating productions on a par with any in the city.  In spite of its low profile. Keegan has been producing quality work for decades, as well as touring work around Ireland and hosting Irish companies.  And Keegan has not played it safe. The theatre has been making bold choices, producing dozens of world, American, and DC-area premieres.  Keegan recently opened its twentieth season with a delightful production of a play that hits close to home in Washington these days, staging the regional premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s What We’re Up Against.

Photo by Cameron Whitman.

A biting comedy about workplace sexism, What We’re Up Against packs a punch, and in this electoral season it hits close to the bone. As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump match wits on the national stage, the fear and bitterness a talented woman encounters resonates beyond the story unfolding on Keegan’s stage. Although the play was written five years ago, it speaks eloquently to the present. In Washington DC, a city imbued at the moment with rancor and tension, the play has a particular appeal, and the night I saw the production, it was well near sold out. Although Washington fares better than most places in terms of the gender pay gap, the positions of power that women have been shut out of are all the more starkly apparent. And as Hillary Clinton challenges that paradigm, the rancor, in certain sectors, grows, much as the venom directed against Rebeck’s protagonist architect Eliza Newcomber intensifies in proportion to her efforts to assert herself.

A biting comedy about workplace sexism, What We’re Up Against packs a punch, and in this electoral season it hits close to the bone.

For architect Eliza Newcomber (Brianna Le Tourneau), the issue isn’t a glass ceiling. She can’t get near the ceiling. She can’t get out of her broom-closet of an office, where she has sat for months. The male architects don’t allow her to work.

After five months of being sidelined, she resorts to trickery. She draws up a design for the expansion of a shopping mall and attributes the work to her colleague, Weber, a moronic golden boy who was hired well after her but has been given steady work. When her boss, Stu, thinks the design is Weber’s, he praises it. When it finds out it is hers, he throws it aside and resolves, with Weber, to come up with a better design. But only Eliza has figured out how to expand the mall and accommodate the air ducts.

The play begins as Stu (Peter Finnegan) realizes he’s been tricked. “She’s a fucking bitch,” he fumes to his colleague Ben (Michael Innocenti). In his estimation, being able to work isn’t Eliza’s motivation. “It’s about power,” he says. Eliza, he snarls “wants to cut [his] balls off.”  After scolding, threatening, and importuning her colleagues, Eliza has a chance to present her design. But within a few minutes, before she has addressed the pivotal issue of the air ducts, Stu and Weber interrupt, raising objections about every minor detail. Janice (Carolyn Kashner)—the only other woman—takes their side. Once again marginalized, Eliza designs a very poor plan for the shopping mall, and she makes sure Stu gets hold of it. As she expected, he presents it to his superior as his own work. The play ends before Stu has a chance to call Eliza on the carpet for her latest deception, but not before Ben explains the problems she’s been having at the firm in these terms: “You haven’t been charming enough.” Eliza explodes, “I’m not charming enough?  I’m talented, you mother-fucker. You tried to erase me! They tried to erase me!”  Ben invites her on a date.

Susan Marie Rhea (who, along with her husband, Mark A. Rhea, heads the Keegan) deftly directs. She keeps the pace quick, maximizes the humor, and foregrounds Eliza’s strength. Under Rhea’s direction, Eliza challenges her colleagues with her body, as well as with her words. In one especially tense scene, Stu and Weber are drinking together in Weber’s office (Weber has set up a bar in his desk).  Eliza enters, and the men keep their backs turned to her as she speaks to them. They keep drinking, too, as if in a men’s only country club. She places herself between them, grabs the bottle and swigs from it. It’s a shocking moment and thoroughly illustrates her brassiness—she is literally claiming her own space.  Well-chosen music during scene changes underscores the play’s themes (the Rolling Stones’ “Under my Thumb,” for example, and Jay Z’s “99 Problems”).  While the acting is universally good, and the casting brilliant, Stephen Russell Murray, as Weber, stands out. He is ridiculously pretentious and boyishly sulky by turns.

woman sitting and talking to two men
Photo by Cameron Whitman.

As Keegan’s website notes, the theatre favors a directing approach that “honors clear, authentic storytelling.” The story is allowed to predominate, and none of the production elements call particular attention to themselves. That said, scenic designer Matthew Keenan’s set—an unremarkable office—has one element that stands out: the entire back wall is a floorplan of the architecture firm. The floorplan allows us to see for ourselves that Eliza’s office is tiny, indeed—about a fourth the size of the conference room.

The Keegan Theatre is a newly comfortable space, following renovations that closed the theatre until last year. Formerly called the Church Street Theater, the Keegan Theatre managed to buy the building in 2013 and redesigned the 120-seat space to improve the layout.  It had been years since I’d set foot in the theatre, having been lured away by so many other good choices in the DC area. That’s a choice I regret, and one I won’t make again. 

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark

Interested in following this conversation in real time? Receive email alerting you to new threads and the continuation of current threads.

subscribe

Comments

0
Add Comment
Newest First