By David A. Rosenberg
Up there among the most dreadful words in the language are “You’re fired!” In “The Consultant,” Heidi Schreck’s fragmented new play in its world premiere at Long Wharf, that threat hangs over everyone’s head like the perpetual cloud hovering above Joe Btfsplk, the gloomy figure in the comic strip “Li’l Abner.”
The time is 2009, just after the beginning of the latest depression. As for the employees in the pharmaceutical advertising firm that is the play’s setting, Tania is always late, Mark is always randy and Jun Suk is always a bundle of nerves. Then there’s Barbara, troublemaker and perhaps seer, whose departure from the firm has left a stinky mark. Oh, and Amelia, the eponymous consultant from N.Y.U., hired to help Jun Suk get through a presentation without a meltdown.
They all have their problems, yet they all manage to function, until someone spills the beans, forcing all sorts of life changes. Yet, says the author, all may be well in a world where even love is temporary and evanescent. “So much is possible,” says one character. “All kinds of miracles are just . . . “ The rest of that line, whatever the miracle might be, is left unspoken.
Author Schreck sets up several intriguing situations but they’re at cross-purposes. Various strands don’t knit together and all seem to be floundering in search of a hook. If we take that diffuseness as a pattern, the effect feels as unfinished as these people’s lives.
Which character should we follow? The smoldering receptionist? The insecure consultant who, though unsure of her life direction, has what seems to be the fastest epiphany on record? The slippery Barbara who’s started her own firm? The mama-loving Mark? The nerve-wracked Jun Suk who’s been cheating on his wife, from whom he’s recently separated, and has a son he’s afraid of losing?
All of which doesn’t make for a tight (no intermission) dramatic work but a long-running, to-be-continued soap opera. This is a work best described as a 90-minute cliff-hanger, relying more on changing relationships than structure.
Kip Fagan’s direction whizzes along on Andrew Boyce’s sleek set, under Matt Fey’s unforgiving lights. Jessica Pabst’s character-specific costumes help as does Daniel Kluger’s buzzing sound design.
Among the cast of millennials, Cassie Beck as Tania suggests the frustrations, both sexual and career-oriented that threaten to be her lot forever. Nelson Lee is tightly wound as Jun Suk, Darren Goldstein skirts smarminess as Mark and Lynne McCullough is a dangerous Barbara. As Amelia, the consultant, Clare Barron transitions from mousy to confident with the subtlest of means. She has a stare that presages someone just waking up to the world’s drawbacks and opportunities.
To her credit, Schreck writes snappy dialogue and sketches in outlines of believable characters. But that’s what “The Consultant” remains -- an outline.