Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Girl in the Boys' Club: "What We're Up Against" by Theresa Rebeck

A good friend of mine, knowing that playwriting can be a bit of a boys' club, recently forwarded me Molly Lambert's article In Which We Teach You How To Be a Woman in Any Boys' Club from (also seen on Jezebel). Good essay; I enjoyed it. And, more than anything, I wished that I could forward it to Eliza, a young woman I met last week -- a smart and driven architect working at a firm that's a poisonous, hostile boys' club.

But I can't actually forward it to Eliza, because she is a fictitious character: the heroine of Theresa Rebeck's play What We're Up Against, currently in its world premiere at the Magic Theatre. Still, it's funny how much Rebeck's play comes across as a dramatization of the situations brought up in Lambert's article. Lambert talks a lot about what you should do if there are two women in the boys' club -- you and someone else -- and the same situation arises in What We're Up Against. There is another woman at the architecture firm besides Eliza: Janice, a mediocre architect who is happy to be the token woman in the boys' club. I liked how Theresa Rebeck is willing to show that not all women are feminists devoted to shaking up the status quo. But I thought that sometimes Janice was portrayed as unbelievably stupid (it is one thing to be a mediocre architect; it is another thing to say "Why can't we just rip all those air ducts out, anyway?"). And the play would have been more complex if there were a clearer sense that Janice was sometimes playing a role, emphasizing her femininity and helplessness so that her co-workers would continue to like her. As it is, she really did seem just that naive.

Eliza, on the other hand, is a tough cookie who is sick of being passed over -- especially when Weber, a man who has not been at the firm for as long as she has, is the new golden boy. Her co-workers tell her that, in architecture, no one does anything interesting their first ten years, but Eliza can't help feeling that gender plays a part. And she hasn't even heard how her co-workers Stu and Ben talk about her behind her back: the first scene of the play features the men saying that Eliza is a "bitch" and a "cunt" after she pulls a stunt to get their attention. "This is what we're up against," one of them says; I love how Rebeck's title can cut both ways. The men feel threatened by their female colleague, but "what we're up against" also refers to the sexism that we, as women, are up against.

I also liked how Rebeck is willing to make Eliza unlikable at times. Even though Eliza's cause is just, she sometimes goes about things the wrong way. She can be abrasive, she can be too unaware of what other people think of her, she can miscalculate and overreach. I couldn't help comparing her to Amanda, the heroine of Sarah Treem's A Feminine Ending, another recent-ish play about a young woman in a boys' club (Amanda is an oboist and aspiring classical-music composer). Amanda has her flaws -- she's insecure, and she can act impulsively -- but those flaws are a lot more endearing than Eliza's flaws. And I think that a play is stronger when its main character is not wholly admirable. At the very least, it helps redeem Rebeck from the charge that she is being one-sided and polemical.

Rebeck has a good grasp of the way that workplace sexism manifests itself in the 21st century. Unlike in the Mad Men era, none of the men make lewd remarks about Eliza, even though she is an attractive young woman. The oldest man, Stu, has the most reductive view of gender. The youngest man, Weber, definitely feels threatened by Eliza, but less because of her gender than because she's simply better than him. He's happy to join the old boys' club because it works to his benefit, but he is less inherently sexist than Stu.

I don't want to oversell What We're Up Against. It realistically portrays an important part of modern life that is not often shown onstage: office politics crossed with gender politics. But it is sometimes hard to care about the architects' project of redesigning a shopping mall, and the supporting characters could use more complexity. The first scene (in which the theme of sexism is the most prominent) is funny but a bit heavy-handed, and the subsequent scenes take too long to deepen the themes.

But I enjoy seeing feminist themes in mainstream theater, and I appreciate that Rebeck has written the role of Eliza, which allows an actress to portray emotions and qualities that are uncommon in roles written for young women, but which are very easy to relate to.

What We're Up Against is at San Francisco's Magic Theatre through March 6.

Photo from Magic Theatre. Sarah Nealis as Eliza; Rod Knapp as Ben.

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