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    Pitcher perfect

    "Tabletop" gives a funny and fascinating look at a hidden subculture of the advertising world — the unknown product-shot crews who can obsess for days over the perfect pour of a drink into a cup.


    For every light on Broadway, there's someone who came to town dreaming of stardom and wound up in voiceovers. Or dressed as a grape in an underwear commercial. Or, in the case of the characters in "Tabletop," trying to get the perfect two-second shot of Fruity Swirl being poured into a cup.

    Company: Working Theater.
    Written by: Rob Ackerman.
    Directed by: Connie Grupo.
    Cast: Rob Bartlett, Harvy Blanks, Jack Koenig, Dean Nolen, Elizabeth Hanly Rice, Jeremy Webb.

    Related links: Official site
    Producing product shots, which the rest of us might think of as the most insignificant two seconds of a commercial, is an absolute obsession for this crew — in fact, they think it's the most important part of the ad. "You're sitting at home watching the idiot box, and you see some pink shit in a cup. It looks good! You want to buy some. That's all that matters," says the director, Marcus (Rob Bartlett).

    And yet, this is hardly high art, as the crew — most of the crew — well understands. The video technician, Oscar (Harvy Blanks), recalls how he got into the business: "I'm saying to myself, 'This ain't no film business. I don't know what it is, but it sure looks like money to me."

    One crew member, the smallest fish in this small pond, doesn't quite get this point. To the lowly assistant Ron (Jeremy Webb), the TV commercial is art, "the single most eloquent expression of our time." The callow Jeffrey approaches his work with an enthusiasm and creativity that, far from being an asset, merely make him a pain in the ass on the set. And yet, even while he gets screamed at and insulted, the results of the kid's work — a beautifully poured stream of Fruity Swirl, a gorgeous spiral of frozen beverage atop a paper cup — send his bosses into rapture. They hate and love this youngster who refuses to accept that he's nothing but a technician.

    There is so much to love in this funny, superbly acted and skillfully written play. Above all, we get a fascinating look behind the scenes at a business we've all seen but few of us even realized existed. Playwright Rob Ackerman, who identifies himself simply with the words "Prop Department" under his name, has spent 10 years in ad production and brings out all the absurdity involved in the obsessive, high-stakes pursuit of the perfect pour.

    Besides that, he perfectly captures a lot of workplace dynamics that go beyond the advertising industry. The blowhard boss — played with a convincingly intimidating bellow by Bartlett, who's also a comedian and a writer for Don Imus — devotes himself to crushing the creativity out of his idealistic young employee in a way that will seem familiar from many other workplaces.

    And one more of the play's skillful touches is the way that almost every character is left in a kind of real-life limbo. The boss may be on the way to landing some big contracts — or bombing out of the business — depending greatly on whether he can admit he needs to embrace the youngster's modern new techniques. The kid, Ron, seems to have the kind of fresh ideas that the ad industry is craving, but he lacks the boss's drive and could easily burn out or work a dead-end job that wastes his talents for the rest of his life. In this, Ackerman has made a universal story out of just the kind of obscure subject that makes for some of the quirkiest and best plays in New York.

    JULY 23, 2000

    Reader comments on Tabletop:

  • Tabletop   from Jim Walker, Dec 25, 2000
  • Jeremy Webb   from Dan Marois, Jul 14, 2001

  • Post a comment on "Tabletop"