By Heidi Schreck
Directed by Ronan Marra
Produced by Signal Ensemble Theatre
An Unfulfilling Slice of Life
After 13 years of presenting plays in Chicago, Signal Ensemble Theatre will be closing its doors after its current production of Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant. In one way, knowing this is Signal’s final production makes The Consultant a meaningful play to close on: Sutton Feingold McGrath, the play’s fictional pharmaceutical advertising agency, is itself in the process of trimming its workforce due to financial hardships. At the same time, however, Schreck’s slice-of-life dramatic comedy is an oddly meaningless play to end on for its writ-for-television open-ended structure and its underdeveloped characters and plot(s) have little more to offer other than well-written dialogue and the promise of aimless entertainment, making The Consultant a play with but a shadow of depth, a remarkable lack of insight, and a conclusion so weak and inconsequential one wonders what comment, if any, Signal might think this play makes upon its own legacy.
Set in New York, The Consultant presents the workday lives of four people trying to balance their paychecks with their personal aspirations and troubles. After a series of layoffs, Jun Suk (Ben Chang), an ad man at Sutton Feingold McGrath, is dangerously close to being let go following a meltdown at his last pitch presentation. Fortunately, the company cares enough about keeping him to hire a consultant, Amelia (Ariel Begley), to help him improve his presentation skills (I guess they have some extra money after all). The only problem is that Amelia, a NYU graduate student, knows virtually nothing about such coaching, she herself being outrageously socially awkward and her training being in ESL tutoring. Lucky for her, apparently all one needs to train such skills is a single book on negotiation from the local library, so coach Jun Suk she will!
Filling out the rest of the office, Tania (Courtney Jones) is the agency’s receptionist who, while having little idea where she’s headed in her career, decides to follow her heart into a bathroom of a bar to begin a wonderful, sex-filled weekend with her office mate Mark (Joe McCauley), who, judging by his commanding poise with a Bluetooth earpiece, is as professional and put-together as this office comes.
From this set-up, the story rambles along with episodic scenes shaving more thin slice-of-life layers from these characters’ confused lives – anti-climaxing in a scene that seems to leave them all just as clueless, sad, and aimless as before. That’s life, I suppose.
After seeing two of Schreck’s plays, Creature and this, it seems as though Schreck’s interest lies not so much in story as in her characters. Yet, despite her command of dialogue that brings them vividly to life, her characters never amount to more than static portraits. This play, for instance, consists of four arcs that lead nowhere: whatever discoveries these characters are supposed to have made by the end of play, we only see changes in their circumstances, not in their understandings of the world or their selves. This, I think, reflects the television-style writing of the play: life happens to the characters but they persevere just as static as ever. I’m doubtful, however, whether this style works for the stage because, without another 11 episodes cultivating these characters to my sympathy, I found very little compelling or engrossing about them or the world that they inhabit.
As far as performances go, everyone captures their character-type with drawn-from-life believably and even nuance – most especially Ariel Begley as Amelia, whose awkward sense of humor and anxious speech and body language is so honest it’s irksome. My only disappointment here is that Schreck’s script didn’t allow these actors to go anywhere deeper than the heightened character-types they so perfectly portrayed. With a few more layers peeled off their workplace faces, I might have really cared about them and not merely admired the performances.
Although I can respect Schreck’s own view on her plays as questioning how one figures out how to live, her execution, at least here in The Consultant, lacks substantive food for thought. So, while Ronan Marra’s directions does the most to capture every ounce of humor and pedestrian drama from the underdeveloped characters and desultory script, Signal’s production of The Consultant only manages to provide us with a few good laughs and around 80-minutes of idle entertainment. But that’s life, I suppose.
Reviewed on January 22nd, 2016
For more info checkout The Consultant page at theatreinchicago.com
Playing at Signal Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $23, with $15 tickets for industry/students/seniors/groups. For tickets and information, call the Signal Theatre box office at 773-698-7389. Performances are Thursdays–Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m., through February 20th (Note: No show Sunday, February 7; there will be an Industry Night performance on Monday, February 8th at 7:30 p.m.). Running time is 80 minutes with no intermission.