Webster’s Bitch – Review by Tom Nissley

What has more words than you ever wanted?

Webster’s Dictionary.

And that might also be a way to describe “Webster’s Bitch.”

I got to see the world premiere of the play at Playhouse on Park and found myself immersed in too many ideas and complaints about how life and work and ambition enter the modern world and our visions of what’s next. Lots of ‘premieres’ are wordy, of course, and include more ‘forewords’ than are necessary. Why should this one be unique? Answer: it isn’t. Here’s a list of what gets introduced to the audience as we’re getting acquainted with what playwright Jacqueline Bircher wants us to know.

The script for working at Webster’s main office includes silence and deadlines. Got to be silent because working on a deadline. The HR Policy for Webster’s has included respect for same-sex marriage for a decade. Lexicographers are a special category of word-workers.
Twitter and other social media are in use big-time by the lexicographers we meet. They are able to follow developments that affect their office and work instantaneously. And right now, they have picked up lots of commentary on the head of the office referring to his right-hand (woman) colleague as ‘my bitch’ in an offhand comment that was not supposed to be broadcast, but, because his mike was already turned on, was.

There will be repercussions. All the phones in the office are ringing off the hook. And the sister of one of the silent lexicographers is a) visiting, b) waiting to go out for margaritas with her sister after the office closes, c) not at all silent, and d) also adept with social media.

All of this foreword stuff does help to set up the plot, such as it is, but if there is a way to cut it way down, the next version of the play will be better.

During this introduction time, we have met three members of the cast of five.

  • Gwen (MEllie (Isabel Monk Cade), Gwen’s talkative sister.
  • Nick (HanJie Chow), also a lexicographer, a gay man who casually mentions that he has a husband.

All three of them are appalled to be following the posts that report on the office supervisor having been broadcast with a reference to his ‘bitch.’ But the impact of how this releases and reveals tension inside the office isn’t clear until we meet two other actors:

  • Joyce (Veanne Cox), the office manager and unfortunate target of the broadcast mishap, and

  • Frank (Peter Simon Hilton), the supervisor who counts on Joyce to pick up and organize his paperwork, as well as carry out his instructions, spoken or unspoken, keeping the office running smoothly and efficiently.

Joyce, of course, is not happy with the publicity that now surrounds them and especially herself. She is threatening some kind of retaliation. Gwen urges her not to act hastily, but also reminds her that she has asked for an annual review and in the process wants to be paid on the same scale that Nick is paid. Even though he has worked there longer, they do the same work. The only obvious difference is that Nick is a man and Gwen is a woman. Joyce says that she can give her a raise but not that much of a raise!

Ellie arrives with some bottled Margaritas, and after some hesitation, the four of them share a drink.

Then Frank arrives. He and Joyce share some catching up and Joyce has her copy of paperwork in front of her. When he asks her to get his copy, she observes that it’s waiting in the copy room and he can get it for himself! Now there’s a wrap-up of all those forewords. She also tells him that she has filed a complaint with HR and is ready to step in (up) if he is fired.

Frank begs her not to destroy him. He also speaks to Gwen about not being able to give her the raise she wants but implies that if she helps him save his job maybe he could reconsider.

And before the office door is shut for the evening, everyone is considering what space in Webster’s he or she might occupy next month.

I expect the next version of “Webster’s Bitch” to be less wordy up front but to have the same emphasis on gender equality. Costumes, lighting, sound, and direction were all adequate in this production.

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre. June 12, 2023