Erika Sheffer’s The Fundamentals does David Mamet proud 

The intriguing outweighs the dutiful in Steppenwolf’s new production.

click to enlarge Armando Riesco, Alan Wilder, and Alana Arenas

Armando Riesco, Alan Wilder, and Alana Arenas

Michael Brosilow

Erika Sheffer's The Fundamentals opens with a crafty one-two punch. As the house lights dim, stock images of happy, indulgent people splash across a sweeping off-white wall adorned with nondescript high-end sconces. "Happiness is a place," a soothing disembodied voice intones. "Comfort is a destination." It soon becomes clear this audiovisual presentation, heavy on marketing hyperbole and inspirational vagaries, is a pitch for the high-end Wellington Hotel Properties. But it isn't designed to lure customers, but rather to convince hotel employees that fealty to corporate "fundamentals"—resourcefulness, professionalism, courtesy, etc, will imbue their work hours with fulfillment bordering on religious ecstasy.

Then the wall divides in two, revealing a cruddy office: gray linoleum floor, decrepit mismatched desks and chairs, institutional storage shelving, piles of clutter, hateful lighting. This is Housekeeping, tucked away in the hotel's inelegant bowels, where those lowest on Wellington's corporate ladder teeter. In an instant one of the play's main themes is laid bare: what we think we're promised in life often bears little resemblance to what we get.

If everything in the script were as craftily executed as this opening minute, Sheffer (Russian Transport) would have a hell of a play. Instead The Fundamentals is a terrifically uneven affair—given a terrifically acted Steppenwolf premiere under director Yasen Peyankov—by turns convincing and improbable, clever and creaky, focused and meandering. And while its attempted indictment of corporate culture doesn't reach much beyond nice guys finish last, it ultimately offers enough high-stakes drama to earn its two-hour running time.

The play focuses on Millie (Alana Arenas), a first-generation American whose dreams of upward mobility ended with an unexpected pregnancy at age 19, leading her to forgo college and marry Lorenzo, her baby's father. She's spent the last nine years cleaning hotel rooms, and even got Lorenzo a hotel job in maintenance, all under the generous tutelage of rapidly aging Abe (Alan Wilder), whose avuncular management style marks him for extinction in Wellington's cutthroat culture. To bring that point home, Sheffer introduces Eliza (Audrey Francis), a Teflon-coated upper-level manager who feeds off corporate blather with officious relish. Eliza's getting heat from "upstairs" to cut costs, so it's pretty clear somebody on Millie's team will end up in the unemployment line before the evening is over.

Like the lion's share of contemporary playwrights, Sheffer takes her sweet time before hinting that this particular episode in her characters' lives will be of meaningful consequence. She lets them dally through almost the entire first act, where they freely demonstrate their various concerns, quirks, and vulnerabilities without anything like a plot to get in their way. We learn it's taken Millie nine years to consider improving her station at the hotel, recently applying for but losing the unaccountable "front desk liaison" position (she lost it to twentysomething Stellan, a self-absorbed actress wannabe). Still, Millie's got her eye on management, encouraged by big-dreaming Lorenzo, whose groundless ambition (he's gearing up to manufacture and market glammed-out $1,000 toothpicks) has run afoul of his gambling addiction. Meanwhile Abe has a deadbeat roommate he can't evict and a nursing-home-bound mother he can't comfort.

It's all interesting and at times affecting, especially given the graceful performances of the top-shelf cast, but it's nearly an hour before we get something more than a diorama. That's when Eliza, suddenly advised of Millie's management ambitions, drops a game-changing hint: If Millie wants to show she's got what it takes to move up, she needs to prove that friendships pale before profits. Perhaps she could keep an eye out for anything that might justify firing overpaid Abe.

It's a deliciously cynical twist that would do David Mamet proud. And in act two, Sheffer taps that cynical vein until it's all but flooded the stage, with a slew of betrayals, recriminations, and double crosses that eviscerate any semblance of loyalty among the downtrodden. But it all comes in such a rush, necessarily squeezed into a single act, that it often feels more expedient than organic. And for every rigorously vetted plot turn—Abe's wholly uncharacteristic yet wholly credible maneuver to get Millie fired is a marvel of dramatic ingenuity—there's a stretch of pure writerly laziness. When Stellan faces termination for a serious infraction, she merely mentions her uncle's an attorney and she's instantly bulletproof. Still, the intriguing outweighs the dutiful, and by the final reckoning Sheffer's morally murky world has turned captivating and disturbing. While the unnecessary final scene lands with a thud, the play as a whole resonates deeply.  v

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