Co-artistic directors Britney Burgess and Matthew Nichols founded Zootopia Theater Company with the belief that "art should remove the boundaries and reflect the human animal," and what better way to show a person's animalistic nature than to put him in competition with another. Television has thrived on the dramatic premise that when a group of people working toward a shared goal are forced to co-exist in a small space, an individual's worst instincts will always prevail. In James Rasheed's dynamic dark comedy Professional Skepticism, we meet four frighteningly ambitious accountants with their sights set on becoming a partner in a prestigious South Carolina firm.
Set designer Andrew Lu has given new meaning to the phrase "paper trail," creating a string of enlarged Xeroxed balance sheets spilling from a giant manila folder hanging from the ceiling and connecting to a paper collage covering the entire back wall of the theater. A calendar suspended from the ceiling by a string of paper clips counts down the days until a big audit is due for a major client and personal friend of the company.
An explosive, bitter senior accountant named Leo (Steve French) is overseeing this audit with his two-man team of newly hired staff accountants, Paul (Matthew Nichols) and Greg (Wesley Thorton). Leo has good reason to be bitter; both his underlings have passed the dreaded certified public accountant exam on their first try, whereas Leo has been struggling with the last section for some time. (So difficult is this test that accountants are given up to three years to pass it.) To cover up for his own insecurities, Leo is constantly trying to instill new ones in co-workers, ruining office morale and hindering work conditions.
Because Leo is high-strung, he drives his colleagues crazy, and the result is a group of paranoid, scheming, plotting characters, all of whom have been stripped of their likability. Senior accountant Margaret (Britney Burgess) comes off as the most sympathetic, being the only woman working in this male-dominated world, but even she has a manipulative side, using her sex to manipulate her drooling co-workers. Greg is sympathetic in the beginning for his attempts to bond with the office outcast, Paul, until his true reasons for doing so are revealed.
In his role as the company whipping boy, and his clueless, buffoonish nature (he's prone to bursting into silly little boogies when he thinks no one is watching), Paul has all the makings of a sympathetic character. But the story's moral center hinges on the fact that he is not. Professional Skepticism shows the ways in which intense competition can corrupt even the most unlikely of characters. Early in the audit, Paul shows no signs of being an aggressive, manipulative man, and yet those qualities exist inside of him, erupting like lava when he is pushed to his breaking point.
But although they are not likable, the characters are all extremely entertaining to watch and so over the top that you find yourself drawn to them and their outrageous, unapologetic attempts to destroy one another. Bridges are being burned left and right, each character becomes an island unto himself or herself, and all are trying desperately to deceive themselves into believing they are better off this way.
Still, the heaviest moment in Professional Skepticism is a character-driven scene near the story's climactic ending. All four accountants rush into their shared office after a major revelation threatens their livelihoods. After pointing fingers and hurling accusations in an earth-shattering screaming match, they wear themselves out and stand there, staring at one another, perhaps realizing for the first time how utterly alone they really are.