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Hamsters on a Wheel 

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Below the Belt

Steep Theatre Company

Richard Dresser packs Below the Belt with allusions to other writers, and part of the fun is picking them out: Oh look, there's Pinter's inexplicable violence, there's Mamet's cutthroat workplace, there's Sartre's entrapment and futility, there's Arthur Miller's disdain for the corporate emphasis on being liked. But Dresser is most indebted to Franz Kafka, who pretty much patented a sense of paranoia threaded with hilarity. In this fine production by Steep Theatre Company, director Dana Friedman and her cast pick up every trick, infusing the piece with tenderness for what people will go through to make a connection as well as ruefulness for what they'll do to escape--sometimes from the very same connection.

The story is slight: an experienced "checker" at an anonymous factory compound, Hanrahan, is joined by a novice, Dobbitt. But this isn't your standard kid-assigned-to-a-grizzled-veteran plot: these two have been isolated from their families for an indefinite period of time and share a cell whose beds offer the choice of boiling or freezing and whose typewriter has a defective Y ("Why?"), impeding their ability to type reports, which no one reads. They try to ascertain from the sound of a buzzer whether their boss, Merkin, is in a good or bad mood and jockey for the utterly worthless boons he can bestow: the right to sit down in the chair facing his desk, the right to be summoned by a single beep rather than a double. The sheer randomness of the environment is encapsulated in Merkin's reply to Hanrahan when he objects to losing "his" single beep to the newcomer: "Would you want him to have twice as many beeps as you, when you've been here so much longer?" Merkin himself is a terrified lower-middle manager who dreams of escaping to an assignment in Spain and who's determined to prevent his two subordinates from becoming friends.

Like academic politics, where the intensity of the battle is inversely proportional to the importance of the subject, the slightest thing--who gets the first party invitation, who gets the best view of the burning river, and most important, who gets to sit in Merkin's chair--becomes cause for murderous rage. After Dobbitt lunges at him over some perceived slight, Hanrahan drily observes that if Dobbitt succeeds in killing him, "You'll get the chair." In this tale of shifting alliances, with combinations forming and collapsing at a breathless pace, Merkin and Hanrahan first join forces against Dobbitt, then Dobbitt and Hanrahan against the boss. Pawns themselves, they use their absent wives as weapons: Hanrahan tries to persuade Dobbitt that his wife has been unfaithful while Merkin rations the love letters Hanrahan receives from his wife.

Tone is everything in a piece like this. Play it strictly for comedy and there's nothing at stake, but approach it with unrelenting existential sobriety and people will run screaming from the room. Director Friedman lets the tone shift with the circumstances, giving the play--despite its surreality--the feel of life. She and the actors put the emphasis where it belongs, on the needs and interactions of the characters, so that it's genuinely touching when Dobbitt and Hanrahan pledge to tell each other the truth, and simultaneously ludicrous and sweet when they dance together like Fred and Ginger. (Kudos to choreographer Alison Domheggen.)

The actors' sure-footedness overcomes the script's weaknesses--times when the ludicrous back-and-forth wears out its welcome. The performances are even sufficient to power the audience through a weak ending, one that somehow lands on the wrong side of the border between obvious and inevitable. Brendan Melanson gives Dobbitt just the right wet-behind-the-ears innocence without making him a fool or a weakling. Laurens Wilson's Merkin is every petty bureaucrat you've ever encountered: determined to show his importance though he has none, eager to receive respect and affection though he gives none. This is truly an ensemble performance, and yet the show belongs to Matthew Carter as Hanrahan. From the moment the lights come up on him hysterical at the typewriter, his protean vocal, facial, and physical expressions carry us surely into the tender heart of his belligerent character. Dresser may have intended that we identify with the naive Dobbitt, but we can't help rooting for Carter's Hanrahan.

Steep Theatre's tiny space is aptly claustrophobic, and John Wilson's assured set design capitalizes on that. At one side of the stage, he's created a dreamlike cell so cramped that when Dobbitt and Hanrahan have to dress simultaneously they're forced into a silent ballet worthy of Laurel and Hardy. Yet on the other side Merkin's office, with its pink message slips and map of the world complete with pins, so perfectly captures the banality of corporate evil that we feel slightly shocked when Dobbitt wonders aloud if they're being held prisoner.

On his Web site, the prolific Dresser bemoans the way theater companies pursue their own visions at the expense of the playwright's work. But he's indebted to Steep Theatre for giving Below the Belt a production that showcases his wit while reining in his tendency to be too clever by half.

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