Last night, I had an opportunity to see a preview performance of a new play, and a first play, by a young playwright; always exciting. Rob Tennant’s Booksmart is the latest Plan B Theatre production of the winning play of the David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists annual contest. It’s a comedy, set in the employee break room in a big Barnes and Noble-style bookstore Booksmart, a few days before Christmas. It is, in short, a play about customer service (shudder!), complete with rude customers, burned out employees, and clueless management. And all the characters are book nerds, most with advanced academic degrees in various disciplines in the humanities–art, philosophy, English lit. They graduated, racked up debt, and face a common dilemma; these are the jobs they got out of college. Yay for them.
It’s a play, in short, about being preposterously and perpetually underemployed, And Casey (Tyson Baker), is fed up. He’s had it. Apparently he’s decided, on this insanely busy day, to clock in, and spend the day in the break room. He’s on strike, apparently, though he, like most retail workers, has no union protection, and in fact seems only vaguely aware of what unions are or how unions function. He wants better pay; he wants benefits. But mostly he’s just irritating. He’s verbally adept, and can talk at length and with great facility about his grievances. He has no idea what to do about any of them.
His closest friend in the store, Alex (Sarah Danielle Young), is sick of him whining, and calls him on it. She’s good at her job, she can cope with the rudest of customers without losing her cheer or moxie or humor, and she knows some things about unionization. She thinks Casey is being a lazy jerk, which makes her job harder, which pisses her off. She knows–everyone knows–how much he’s into her, which also pisses her off. More specifically, though, she disapproves of his tactics.
So it’s a play about unions. It’s a play about labor v. management. It seems to be, in fact, kind of a comedic millennial version of Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, only with retail workers instead of cabbies, which makes sense, Uber having supplanted taxis in our world. Odets’ great ’30s masterpiece, of course, cut back and forth between vignettes about suffering cab drivers and scenes in a union hall, awaiting a strike vote. Tennant’s play is similarly structured; we cut between Casey’s on-going work stoppage, and his co-workers’ phone conversations with preposterously rude (but oh-so-familiar) customers. The impact of Odets’ play was to stoke the white-hot fury of his age; because the defining mood of our day is ironic, the impact of Tennant’s, is comedy, though with a self-critical edge.
From time to time, three other Booksmart employees drift in and out of the break room. Each time the break room door to the store opens, we hear snippets of the most gosh-awful Christmas music. (As usual, Cheryl Cluff’s stellar sound design tells us everything we need to know about the world of the play). Those musical bits were consistently great, and got the best laughs of the play. My first reaction to the play, in fact, was that, aside for the music, it should be funnier. But on further reflection, I’m not sure that’s what I want to say. (Lousy note, anyway; ‘be funnier.’) That music, as imagined by Tennant and executed by Cluff, suggested something more interesting than just a pleasant comedy.
I bought a new phone recently, and in the store where I transacted, Christmas music was similarly ubiquitous. When a particularly obnoxious version of that pro-roofie tease ‘Baby it’s cold outside’ played, one employee at the store said, to no one in particular, “when I slit my wrists, this music will be why.” One of her co-workers suggested a coping strategy; crank up the hip-hop for the drive home. “But I don’t like hip-hop,” said the girl. “Neither do I,” said her friend. “But it cleanses the palate.” Both of them laughed. And it struck me how marvelously true is Tennant’s use of music, and how spot-on his depiction of the bright, well-educated souls trapped in retail hell.
Tennant populates his play with similar folk; smart, and damned. (Every time they go on break, they pull out a book). April Fossen played Ruth, a former long-term adjunct university faculty; a highly intelligent and well-read woman who really should be tenured somewhere. As the play progresses, she has a series of phone encounters with a male customer-from-hell (we only see her end of the conversations, but we know this guy). Those conversations go badly. By the play’s end, she’s likely to be terminated from yet another job for which she’s ridiculously overqualified. Anne Louise Brings played Cindy, a young woman unhealthily obsessed with Katniss Everdeen; after another rude customer drives her to tears, she’s far more inclined to entertain Casey’s rebellion. And Joe Crnich played Hippie Ed, barely able to remember his advanced degree in philosophy (and naively astonished to learn of the pagan origination of Christmas holiday traditions); what was once a fine mind seems to have been compromised by that bane of aging hippies, Too Much Weed. He becomes Casey’s first convert. He’s also what passes for management, presumably because he’s their one older white male.
Most of the play’s funniest moments are the hints we get of the chaos outside the break room, and the one-sided exchanges between Ruth, Cindy and Ed and various customers-from-hell. But most of the play’s focus is on Casey, who’s ineffectual kvetching becomes rather irritating. I found myself wondering if Casey’s oh-so-verbal fecklessness might be part of the point. I found him an unappealing character; perhaps I was supposed to. Perhaps the play is about how ill-prepared college training leaves humanities majors for the actual vicissitudes of gainful employment. The title of the play is, after all, Booksmart. Which, in common parlance, contrasts unfavorably with streetsmart. And how gainful is their employment? It’s not just Casey; all these characters struggle financially, especially Alex, whose landlord has just raised her rent.
They need a union, frankly. The play makes that case persuasively. And Alex is the only one of them with the wherewithal to organize one. And that effort, we sense, is unlikely to succeed. Quite possibly, Booksmart’s management will simply fire them all for even discussing the possibility. It’s not like they’ll have any difficulty finding more overqualified humanities majors to replace them. We know all that; so does Alex, the play’s most appealing and tragic character.
In the Group Theatre’s seminal production of Waiting for Lefty, the audience, according to legend, left the theater shouting ‘strike strike strike!’ Whether that actually happened or not, it was certainly the greatest agit-prop play in American history. (And then Odets sold out; went to Hollywood, made some money, drank too much, died too young). What Booksmart suggests is the need for a similar national effort to the essential centrality of organized labor in the 30s. Occupy Wall Street? But didn’t that movement, so profoundly compelling, and similarly a coalition of underemployed ticked-off millennials and aging 60’s relics, eventually dissipate its energy in direction-less empty rhetoric? Doesn’t the Bernie Sanders campaign represent another possible way out of the cul-de-sac of non-specific hopes and unrealized change? And isn’t that campaign likewise losing its mojo?
Tennant’s play strikes me as a fascinating artifact of our times, a verbally adept agit-prop comedy about feckless, misdirected idealism. It’s not quite the Waiting for Lefty of our time; it’s not angry enough for that, because we’re not; we’re just tired. My final response to it wasn’t ‘strike strike strike!’ It was a kind of cynical weariness. The fight against inequality today isn’t a fight against brutal bosses and their murdering thugs. It’s the far less equal fight against stultifying corporate blandness, heard most clearly in the relentless false cheer of mandated muzak. Every time that door opened, we were reminded of it, the anodyne ubiquity of jingling Rudolf. How the hell do you fight that?