Saturday, April 21, 2007 | Four women sit in a circle, talking feelings like they’re in a support group meeting. In this case, however, the women are sitting in a corporate office building and they’re trying to get an executive fired for sexual harassment.
Native San Diegan Ann Weisman’s “Hold Please,” playing at the Old Globe through May 6, takes a quirky look at the daily lives of four women representing two generations — all corporate secretaries. Directed by Kirsten Brandt, the play’s off-center perspectives on sexual politics in the workplace swing from satire to dark-comedy. The story deftly avoids getting stuck with any “feminist” or “chick flick” type labels by using witty dialogue and dimensional characters made believable by the actresses.
Staged in the black box-style (a black-room that has intimate seating and minimal sets and props) Cassius Carter Centre Stage, “Hold Please” introduces executive secretaries Erika, Jessica, Grace and Agatha two-by-two. The younger pair, Erika and Jessica, brashly relay their recent sexual conquests in a rapid-fire delivery interrupted only momentarily whooshing sounds. (Those whooshes are actually brilliant stand-ins for the office telephone rings; each call is signified by a “whoosh” sound and a flash of white light. It’s a fantastic and creative solution because regular telephone rings or buzzes would become quickly intolerable to the ears.)
The younger women, managing their jobs completely on autopilot, talk about how they have nothing emotional invested in their work. Though the striking Erika (Stephanie Beatriz) proves to be efficient and good at her job, the more obtuse Jessica (the scene-stealing Kate Arrington) flips magazines, calls boyfriends and cusses when she drops calls.
The two sets of women are a separated by generation; the older pair — Grace and especially Agatha — hail from the old-school secretarial world with their more formal attire and loyalties to outdated technology.
Interactions between the four very different women who spend eight hours a day together five days a week range from comical (Agatha’s obsession with her hidden stash of Nutter Butters or Jessica’s hilarious “White Out” rap song) to uneasy (Agatha and Grace seem to have some plan in the works; the slacker Jessica all of a sudden kisses the new boss’ behind.)
You never quite know if the women are genuinely a team or if it’s all for one and one for all. Kandis Chappell’s fastidious, controlling Agatha’s interactions with the other women seem dishonest and forced. But Chappell successfully sheds layers of Agatha’s ‘skin’ and makes her dimensional, not dull. All four actresses are great; they flesh out their characters nicely and the chemistry among them clicks. But Kate Arrington’s droll but deadpan delivery is a crack up and she steals her scenes.
Weisman’s care to not brand each character, you know — the slut, the prim one, the witchy one —serves as a nice departure from that easy move. But the play examines the phenomenon of women in the workplace where judgments can be made too quickly with consequences. In a nice twist there are some leadership switches in the office with unexpected results. This theater’s intimate nature serves to enhance the story. Enterprising scenic design by Michael Vaughn Sims creates believable workspaces with a quick-switch tier added between scenes to depict a smoke-break area on a balcony. David Lee Cuthbert’s attention-getting lighting design stands out immediately from the flashing phone-switchboard lights to those ugly fluorescent lights that all offices use.
What begins as something straight out of the movie “9 to 5” slowly takes shape into an edgy, satirical comedy that brings out deeper emotions from the characters and forces the audience to consider sexual politics in the workplace from every angle.