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Theater Review: "Consultant" At Long Wharf Offers Gallows Humor, Good Acting, Few Answers

NEW HAVEN — Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant, which is receiving its world premiere at New Haven’s Long Wharf, is billed as a comedy, which could be slightly misleading.

Among other achievements in her background, playwright Schreck is listed as having been a scriptwriter for Nurse Jackie. And while the Showtime series starring Edie Falco happens to be one of my all time favorite television shows, and while it indeed has some hilariously funny repartee between the characters, I wouldn’t call it a comedy. Its heart-rending portrayal of drug addiction, family break-up, and the dysfunctional aspects of the American health care system are too real, and way too troubling, to be called comic.

In the same way, this play about a handful of millennials caught in the crunch of the great economic downturn of 2008-09, is filled with snappy patter delivered by over-educated young people trapped in a world where their jobs are demeaning, even as they are haunted by the shadow of looming unemployment.

Set in the outer office of an ad agency specializing in pharmaceuticals, the play follows a month in the lives of a trio of attractive young thirty-somethings  — Mark, the glad-handing, extroverted office manager; Jun Suk, the moody Korean-American designer; and Tania, the cynical gate-keeper/receptionist whose degree in comparative literature from NYU has not led to any more meaningful employment  —  and the way they are impacted by the arrival of Amelia, a 22-year old grad student who arrives as a “consultant.”

Amelia is looking for subjects for a graduate project in her major, Public Policy, and imagines that she is there to coach immigrants in learning English and adapting to a new country. In fact, Mark has recruited her to help Jun Suk  — who grew up in Westchester  — prepare for an important presentation. Crippled by nervous anxiety, Jun Suk’s last attempt to sell an ad campaign to a client had been a disaster, and if he can’t manage to do better this next time, even more heads will probably roll at this company, which has already been decimated by layoffs.

If you’ve ever watched Nurse Jackie, Amelia brings to mind the well-meaning and totally clueless young Nurse Zoe, who really wants to help, and is convinced that everything will work out. Reading from a self-help manual, Amelia coaches Jun Suk on the body language, facial expressions, and small talk that will put the client at ease and sell him on the value of the material he is being shown.

Meanwhile, in Sex and The City fashion, Tania and Mark engage in a ritual mating dance that will lead to at least a frantic coupling in the bathroom of a trendy bar, if not something more sustainable.

This play, which continues its debut in New Haven until February 9, is very well acted. Cassie Beck as Tania, Clare Barron as Amelia, Darren Goldstein as Mark, and Nelson Lee as Jun Suk are totally convincing as a group of young people in a toxic environment, whose basic instincts are decent, and who genuinely try to help one another. As the program notes remind us, however, the corporate world can be destructive to the soul.

A quote from Malcom Gladwell is spot on: Those three things  — autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward  — are, most people will agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.

Those are exactly the qualities lacking in the jobs the characters are clinging to in this play, but at least they haven’t been laid off… yet. They can still take home enough money to pay back some fraction of their college loan debts, even if they can’t afford a settled adult life…

Five years have passed since the setting of the play, and the Dow has bounced back some 10,000 points from its low point on March 9, 2009. We are told that the Recession is over; housing starts are up; manufacturing is coming back; consumer confidence is improving…

But when you reflect on the bill languishing in Congress to extend benefits to the one million long term unemployed, or you think about the hundreds of thousands of homes that are “under water,” or the children of friends and relatives who send out hundreds of resumes and can’t get a single interview — it makes you wonder what’s out there.

And when The Wolf of Wall Street is nominated for multiple awards, while Wall Street traders happily root for the DiCaprio character as their hero, it also makes one wonder. 

So The Consultant makes you laugh, yes, but it’s really gallows humor. It raises questions, but neither the consultant of the title, nor the play itself, has any answers to offer.

This show has a running time of 90 minutes, without intermissions. For ticket and curtain details, call 203-787-4282 or visit www.LongWharf.org.

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