Monday, February 14, 2011

What We're Up Against

(Pamela Gaye Walker and Sarah Nealis. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.)

It’s no surprise that gender discrimination still runs rampant in the workplace—especially in architecture, the historically male-dominated field that is the backdrop for Theresa Rebeck’s What We’re Up Against (at the Magic Theatre). What is surprising is that Rebeck, who elsewhere has spoken passionately on the prejudices women encounter in their places of business, has written such a simplistic drama on the subject.

It’s not that the play, under the direction of Loretta Greco, is boring. On the contrary, characters ignore and swear at each other enough to ensure that conflict constantly brews, even as they supposedly comprise a “team” at an architecture firm—a fiction that might have been easier to maintain before Eliza (Sarah Nealis) joined, with her youth, her femininity and her wanton disregard for standard protocol.

But if Rebeck’s play entertains (and it does, amply), it fails to enlighten. Yes, men can deny women opportunities, condescend to them and treat them as sexual objects, all while rewarding the less qualified among their own. They can cloak their discrimination in vague, unquantifiable terms like “procedure” and “initiative,” then refer to women as “cunts” behind their backs—all with impunity. And yes, women themselves often fail to ally when they are tokenized—especially across generations—perceiving themselves instead as competitors for some unattainable prize.

None of these problems are new. And in Rebeck’s drama, the characters fall a little too clearly into the “right” and “wrong” camps. We can tell almost from the beginning that Eliza and Ben (Rod Gnapp) will eventually find common ground in their love for and talent in their craft, while Weber (James Wagner), Stu (Warren David Keith) and Janice (Pamela Gaye Walker) are conveniently both upholders of the inequitable status quo and bad architects. Is Rebeck trying to suggest that discrimination derives from lack of self-confidence?

A fine point to allude to, but understatement gets lost in a play in which every character almost always says exactly what’s on his or her mind—a style the actors can’t get the hang of at the beginning, when the story hasn’t unfolded enough yet to merit that much urgency. Story is everything for Rebeck; on the page, each of her characters is little more than a single interest that responds to a series of events. This ensemble does admirable work in adding humanity to a dehumanized group of people—with a special nod to Walker for lending some moral gray area to a character who could have been more definitively black. But in the end, we emerge confirmed in our knowledge that gender discrimination exists and that it’s bad—but with little idea as to how real people might actually respond to it.

A side note: Isn't it a little convenient that every character in the play is white?

What We’re Up Against continues (Tuesday to Sunday, various times until March 6 at the Magic Theatre, in Fort Mason, San Francisco. For tickets ($20 - $60), visit

1 comment:

  1. I also see the point that a playwright should get to write about whatever she wants; talking about one social signifier doesn't mean you have to talk about every social signifier. If I'm asking Rebeck to have a racially representative cast of characters, I should require the same from every contemporary playwright--which I don't.