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    Mao on Line One

    A business-class hero
    is something to be

    "Mao on Line One," about a rising executive who suddenly becomes invisible except when online, is a sharply written satire skewering corporate culture and our technology-obsessed selves.


    The sayings of Chairman Mao might not be the best place to look for the answers to modern corporate anomie, but Kimberly Megna's smart satire "Mao on Line One" is a good place to start.

    Company: DowntownTheatre Company.
    Written by: Kimberly Megna.
    Directed by: Kelly Gillespie.
    Cast: Jeffrey M. Bender, Natalie Gold, Christy Collier, Eric Loscheider, Ellen Shanman, Michael Warner.
    Sound design by: Sten Severson.
    Set design by: Brian Scott.
    Costumes by: Karl A. Ruckdeschel.
    Lighting design by: Zakaria M. Al-Alami.

    Related links: Official site
    Center Stage NY
    48 West 21st St., 4th floor
    Jan. 16 - Feb. 1, 2004

    When we enter the theater, six chairs — clanky, deliberately low-tech contraptions of metal and wood that can't be less than 30 years old — sit in six separate illuminated squares on the stage, four of them occupied by corporate personalities, from the fast-talking VP in flashy silver tie to the wisecracking administrative assistant in fishnet stockings. A fifth is occupied by a bride in classic white dress and veil, looking upset. The sixth is empty.

    Enter Daniel, an upper-middle manager with a problem. The slightly too frumpy-looking executive in training, who's as inspired by old history books as by any modern business guru, is on the verge of dropping out of corporate society. And that's not by choice — it's something that's settled over him like a thick, billowing fog. Suddenly he's become an invisible man — he's just stopped being visible bodily, when standing in plain view of his thoroughly state-of-the-art colleagues. The motion-sensor doesn't even turn the automatic room lights on when he walks into his office, although his assistant, who lights up the darkened room with a flourish of her arm, says maintenance assures her the detector is working fine. "They asked if you were extremely short or something," she says.

    The motion-sensor doesn't even turn the automatic room lights on when Dan walks into his office, although his assistant says maintenance assures her the detector is working fine. "They asked if you were extremely short or something," she says.  

    But oddly enough, none of this means he isn't still a valued member of the team — he's still accessible by phone, e-mail, IM, blackberry and text message. He quickly learns to whip out his cell phone if he wants to talk to the people standing right in front of him — sometimes he just holds it straight out in front of him as a talisman against his own disappearance.

    This is when Dan meets Lorraine, a lawyer in a nearby firm who has her own Mao Zedong obsession equal to his fascination with James K. Polk. She thinks he should quit. "You read about dead presidents and know the correct word for the study of fish," she says. "You are not a virtual kind of guy."

    But Dan insists that he loves his hazily defined job as corporate client execution manager. "My work is not virtual!" he protests. "I ... handshake!"

    As we watch these two navigate their fledgling romance while floundering in their oddball work environments, it becomes increasingly clear that Lorraine's advice to Dan is really what she's afraid to tell herself. She's the one on the corporate treadmill — in fact, she spends much of the play literally running her workdays away, keeping in touch with the office via wrist phone.

    It's possible to find a few faults with the "Mao on Line One," but in general it's a terrific, fast-paced, funny sendup of modern business culture. The characters may not be fully warm-blooded and the play may not ultimately have a clear message about how to find your place if you're an enlightened soul in a sterile corporate culture, but who expects ultimate answers and deep psychology in a satire? It's enough that playwright Megna keeps her skewer sharp and has honed almost every line to comic excellence. Every office conversation becomes a witty verbal joust and even the most minor dialogue can be hilarious. ("Hasidic men playing baseball? I didn't know Hasidics played baseball!" comments Lorraine to herself as she passes a ballfield on one of her runs. "No, I knew. I just didn't know they looked so ... Hasidic when they did it.") Your careful attention is repaid as lines from earlier conversations pop up again in later ones, yet Megna has enough good ideas and good sense that she never milks a gag more than once. And some more serious themes — like the thorny persistence of the past in our forward-looking culture — are woven in subtly enough that you know they're there but they don't detract from the laughs.

      "Hasidic men playing baseball? I didn't know Hasidics played baseball! No, I knew. I just didn't know they looked so ... Hasidic when they did it."
    The acting here is first-rate, though at first Bender seems wrong for his part — he's too soft and tweedy to play the chiseled corporate man that the play seems to demand initially, but this turns out to be right for his odd-man-out part. Natalie Gold as Lorraine and Eric Loscheider as her colleague make the most of some very funny wisecracking scenes. Set and lighting design by Brian Scott and Zakaria M. Al-Alami underline the play's concepts very effectively, with the characters' isolated office squares selectively illuminated when they're needed and bright rectangular backgrounds suggesting glassy office-tower windows. Only in the foreground does the lighting become murky, with actors spending too much time in dark patches when they're supposed to be visible.

    Altogether, "Mao on Line One" is a blast — skillfully produced and funny from start to finish. If by the end we haven't come to sympathize with our high-flying corporate masters or come up with our true direction in life, at least we've had a few moments of self-recognition, some well-aimed jabs at our instant-messaging, cell-phone-talking, voice-mail-checking, Blackberry-updating, iPod-listening, meeting-taking selves.

    JANUARY 25, 2004

    Reader comments on Mao on Line One:

  • Wonder work   from K., Jan 26, 2004
  • Not impressed.   from Julie H, Feb 2, 2004
  • [no subject]   from Alex Stratton, Feb 2, 2004

  • Post a comment on "Mao on Line One"