On the Job

I'm still not quite sure what to make of Smoke and Mirrors, but one thing is for certain: I am still thinking about it. With the help of the Bats, the Flea Theater's resident repertory company, the play brings to life one day in the life of corporate America. The setting is Anywhere, U.S.A. Playwright Joseph Goodrich provides no details, instead creating an undefined, universal work setting, where all the action takes place in the break room of an office building over the course of one day. As one scene flows into another, the various characters interact during their many smoke breaks, discussing their latest workplace problems or discoveries.

The seven characters seem to have very different functions, although they are never specified. Anita (Susan Hyon), for example, regularly clashes with the supervisor of her transportation department (who remains offstage) and seems to be on thin ice. Anita is intense and nervous about her situation, but doesn't seem intent on doing much to fix it, making her character a stark contrast to Terry (Jason Dirden).

I wasn't sure what Terry did, but it didn't seem as if much ever worried him. Dirden and Hyon are a stark contrast in acting styles. He is a more reactive, in-the-moment performer and makes the role his own. But Hyon, who carries many of the play's big scenes, delivers monotonous line readings; they sound rote, as though they were coming straight off the page. I wish director Nick Faust had done more to provoke the emergence of a real character from Goodrich's blueprint.

As many herbal cigarettes are smoked, we meet the other characters: Tammi (Aurelia Lavizzio), a security guard, and her supervisor, the creepy Moses (Ben Horner); Estelle (Jocelyn Kuritsky), a largely silent observer who smokes like a chimney but is quick to spray air freshener in her colleagues' direction as they puff away; and Drew (Stas May) and Chad (Parrish Hurley), the group's most intriguing pair. Goodrich never explains what they do, but they always enter the break room in bloodstained lab coats, apparently reeking of an awful odor of some sort. Are they working with animals? Humans? To what end? We never learn, which is both the beauty of Smoke and Mirrors and its undoing.

As we watch the characters interact, the play appears to be headed in one direction. Goodrich seems to be commenting on the perception of corporate workers as mere cogs in a big wheel, depicting how work friendships are little more than tenuous relationships based on superficial bonds. However, around the halfway point, the show moves in a different direction, one that Goodrich probably assumes is deeper and more revelatory than it appears to be to the audience.

Strange events suddenly occur. One character's rant against the American flag is followed by a witch hunt, with Tammie and Moses accusing Anita of sending a threatening, treasonous e-mail to the company. Anita claims no knowledge of the event, and the audience is inclined to agree with her, but we learn little more about the letter's origin before Drew and Chad appear, vomiting onstage as a result of fish tacos they had consumed earlier at lunch.

Are these developments related? Again, Goodrich doesn't clarify, and so not only do these moments appear unlinked, they are never explained. The action only gets odder rather than illuminating by the play's end. This is a shame, because I was perfectly willing to ride the play out to its conclusion.

Faust's production creates a great universe, but Goodrich's plot muddles his messages. If Smoke and Mirrors intended to depict its characters as automatons, I'm not sure what he accomplishes by steering it in a more ominous direction. He is too ambitious in an absurdist way, and raises too many unanswered questions. The piece's title is only half true: I saw a lot of smoke in this play, but very little of myself reflected in it.

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