In the Scandanavian American Theater Company’s production of Rhea Leman’s Gorilla, five businessmen and their HR director navigate a weekend seminar on expression and trust. In what is revealed to be an evaluation that could cost them their jobs (and in some cases, far more), the characters’ relationships, personalities, histories and sex lives are laid bare, pride is chucked out the window, more than a few punches are thrown and questions are asked about the role of masculinity in the modern professional world.
We never get a solid sense of what Owen (Albert Bendix), Stephen (Oliver Burns), Robert (L.J. Ganser), Ernest (Alfred Gingold) and Lawrence (Khris Lewin) do for a living, only that for the past year they’ve been doing it rather badly. Their team has had the poorest performance in the company in a year of economic distress (the play is set in 2009), and now they’re at the last of a series of teamwork workshops designed to help them work with more trust and intimacy.
Dragging them down this path of corporate and personal enlightenment is Lillian (Jennifer Dorr White), from the company’s HR department; midway through the play, they are joined by their boss, Thrasher (Tullan Holmqvist), who makes it clear their suspicions of future firings are well-founded. Some murmurs of the role played by sexuality and gender make their way through the blend of analyses and posturing, and it’s in her sexual and animal metaphors that Leman’s play shows both strength and depth.
Gorilla never breaks the fourth wall, maintaining a setting within the walls of a single conference room in sanitized, businesslike shades (to call the pale tones “colors” seems over-ambitious). There are moments, such as one where Owen and Stephen negotiate a possible transaction, where the characters show how deeply imperfect they are – in one particularly insightful speech, Stephen describes his wife and her lack of confidence and her need for affection in a way that makes one wonder if he isn’t, in fact, projecting his issues onto her.
One nitpicky point regarding the translation: midway through Gorilla, Owen explains the meaning of the word to Stephen. Something – I’m not sure what – is missing in the exchange that takes place around the translation of “Gorilla” itself; maybe translation from Danish to English has dulled the comparison’s point? It’s frustrating that it isn’t clearer, since Leman can be assumed to have been making the connection to her play’s title in that moment. Addressing this point more clearly could have heightened the title’s impact for English-speaking audiences.
The individual characters are as specifically drawn as their roles require; while Ernest and Thrasher seem to have limited arcs, the others are more active. One feels as if there should be more weight to Lillian’s inability to make a tough choice, near the end of the play, particularly given the knowledge we’ve already attained via audience privilege.
This is a satisfying eighty minutes of theater, a naturalistic play with a story that gets you somewhere – even if, as the lights fade to black, you’re not exactly sure where you’ve ended up.
Rhea Leman’s Gorilla is playing at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, www.theatrerow.org. For the curious, here’s the production company’s page on IndieGoGo: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/gorilla.