Webster’s Bitch – Review by Tom Holehan

By some theatrical twist of fate I’ve seen no less than three world premiere plays in less than a month. One we won’t discuss further (looking at you Legacy Theatre!), one was a real find (Barrington Stage Company’s “The Happiest Man on Earth”) and the latest is Jacqueline Bircher’s provocative “Webster’s Bitch”, currently finishing out its debut at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford. While far from a perfect work, this workplace dramedy has something on its mind and doesn’t mind saying it.

Set in the Stamford, Connecticut offices of Webster’s Dictionary, a pair of diligent lexicographers, Gwen (Mia Wurgaft) and Nick (HanJie Chow), are working silently on dictionary updates while Gwen’s younger sister, Ellie (Isabel Monk Cade), is waiting around in order to get marguerites with Gwen after work. We soon find out that the editor of the company, Frank (Peter Simon Hilton), who was at Yale giving a talk to professionals in the field, was caught on a hot mic saying that his assistant editor, Joyce (Veanne Cox, superb), was his “bitch”. From that politically incorrect slip of the tongue comes a drama about word usage, social media abuses, gender inequality, office dynamics and more. It’s a lot to cram into 100 minutes (without intermission) and Bircher might, in a future revision, concentrate on exactly which story she wants to focus her talents on.

There is plenty to chew on here with several scenes that individually stand out. In particular, Gwen’s battle royal with Joyce over getting paid the same as her male counterpart is terrific with timely issues given weight and power. Another memorable episode late in the play finds Joyce confronting Frank over his comment. It is here, with fire in her eyes, that she could be speaking for all women who have endured being subordinate to a male boss. The staging by director Vanessa Morosco is thrilling to watch and Bircher’s lines sizzle and strike their intended targets masterfully.

Cox is a mesmerizing actress to watch. Clad in a trim pencil skirt and vivid blouse (Raven Ong’s costuming hits the mark), her icy reserve conceals years of taking a back seat to men she knows she is smarter than. The other excellent performance is from Wurgaft whose Gwen is both smart, vulnerable and savvy enough to know her worth. The remaining actors are fine without making much of an impression except Cade, whose character of Ellie is as annoying as the actress playing her. The role doesn’t make much sense (would someone this infantile really be accepted into a Peace Corp type program in Nepal?). She seems dropped in the play for comic effect. To give her credit, Cade does a great job with a monologue about her stint as a flight attendant. It’s funny and fairly well played, but serves zero purpose to the story at hand.

This is a fine first draft of a play and POP must be commended for giving new authors and plays a voice. The plucky theatre company continues to take chances and that is very much in evidence with their new season already announced. I’m happy to say it looks exciting and daring, free of the tried and true. Thank you for that, POP. I, for one, do not need to see one more production of “The Legend of Georgia McBride”!

“Webster’s Bitch” continues at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford, Connecticut, through June 18. For further information, call the box office at: 860-523-5900 X 10 or visit: www.playhouseonpark.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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