05/11/2013 12:06 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

First Nighter: Workplace Woes Scrutinized in Three Plays, One Musical

Perhaps it's this reviewer's imagination, but it seems that more than the usual number of plays set in the workplace are cropping up. Take Mike Bartlett's Bull at 59E59, which is quite clearly a companion piece to last season's Cock, which wasn't about working.
Whereas in the latter 90-minuter, a focal man is confronted by a male and female lover and then his estranged father, the former 90-minuter has a worried male taunted by two sleeker co-workers over his inevitably unfortunate outcome in the imminent disclosure about who will retain jobs when the boss arrives.
For the parallel plays, Bartlett puts a specific conceit in gear, dictated by his title. Cock unfolds in an arena, and Bull--you get it: he's having fun with the phrase "cock and bull stories"--takes place in what resembles a boxing ring rather than a bull ring. It's designer Soutra Gilmour's square where the participants square off, with only a water cooler as furnishing. Rhetorical question: Is there anything that symbolizes the workplace more than a water cooler?
In Bull, the contentious colleagues are Tony (Adam James), Isobel (Eleanor Matsuura), Carter (Neil Stuke) and boss Thomas (Sam Troughton), all extremely well directed by Clare Lizzimore. But the problem with the material is that as the tough Bartlett clings to his metaphor, the survival-of-the-fittest encounters that occur eventually become doggedly schematic.
Those who've seen Cock will fight déja vu, although those who haven't will likely respond more readily to its harsh depiction of employment at a moment in the history of finance when being fired is especially dire.
The 2008 downturn also infuses Steven Levenson's Core Values at Ars Nova. This one unfolds not in a symbolic space but in an actual conference room (Lauren Helpern's set), where (again) four co-workers are involved. They're having a retreat there rather than at a fancy hotel--or even Miami, as has happened in the past.
The boss is Richard (the ubiquitous and always terrific Reed Birney), who--rather than being the kind of unforgiving executive Bartlett unleashes--is clumsily trying to hold his failing travel agency together. He's aided more or less by reliable top assistant Nancy (Susan Kelechi Watson), office technician and ineptly aspiring agent Todd (Paul Thureen) and uncertain Eliot (Erin Wilhelmi), who's just been hired, despite her having little experience in any field. Yes, Eliot is a young, very young woman.
Levenson sees to it--in what could be described as a nervous comedy--that in a series of short scenes covering the retreat's Saturday and Sunday, Richard's attempts to boost company morale through various games becomes increasingly despairing. For instance, he forces Todd and Eliot to hold mock agent-client telephone conversations that confer on neither of them any acquired expertise. The segment is funny while being sorrowfully downbeat.
Carolyn Cantor directs Core Values with a deft and understanding hand. She does especially well, as do Birney and Watson, with a scene where Nancy, a mother concerned about her son, tries to express her loyalty to Richard, but he mistakes her outpouring as a romantic advance and reacts awkwardly.
At 90 minutes, Core Values is probably longer than it needs to be, but--like Bull--it captures the tormenting dynamics of the work environment in troubled times.
The Ayub Khan Din (book, lyrics)-Paul Bogaev-Ayub Khan Din (co-composers) musical Bunty Berman Presents... is mostly centered in a Bombay movie studio. If you've guessed that it's a Bollywood send-up, go to the head of the class.
The title character--played by Khan Din, taking over the role when the initial actor was injured--has built his company by featuring leading-man Raj Dharam (Sorab Wadia) in a series of epics (i. e., Gandhi of the Ganges). But Raj has gotten older and wider and has become box-office poison at Indian movie palaces.
So, as with Core Values, a failing business in a uneasy workplace is the setting. This offering, however, is going for a heartier brand of laughs, where Bunty-Ji--along with adoring executive assistant Dolly (Gayton Scott) and script writer Nizwar (Sevan Greene)--eventually subordinate themselves to shady Shankar Dass (Alok Tewari), who sees his nasty son Chandra (Raja Burrows) as a star. All this while imperious leading lady Shambervi (Lipica Shah) and ex-boyfriend and studio tea boy Saleem (Nick Choksi) play at romance--and everyone cavorts in properly garish William Ivey Long costumes.
As inexorably guided by director Scott Elliott and choreographer Josh Prince, that's a lot of story. Unfortunately, aside from the occasional production notion (the revealed papier maché hind quarters of an elephant is one), the dialogue and the songs aren't up to much. Bunty Berman Presents... doesn't turn out to be the vast improvement on previous India-based musical hopeful Bombay Dreams that tuner fans may be awaiting. It does, however, include the lyric "Your lingam'll be swing'un once again." And don't expect the definition of "lingam" to be included here.
If you think the returning-from-retirement Richard Foreman is being direct with the title of Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance), at the Public, you might be assuming working girls are the subject matter. But in his 40-year-plus career, Foreman has never been direct about anything.
So the two women (Stephanie Hayes, Alenka Kraigher) adorning the typically cluttered set Foreman designed (in place, the taut signature strings at stage front) could be gaudily clad hookers, or not.
That's not the point. The point is: First-time patrons need to understand that trying to decipher what Foreman is saying is futile. Furthermore, objecting to the obscurity is playing into his hands. Beyond noticing he's got a befuddled protagonist (Rocco Sisto in white suit with cropped trousers) questioning his existence, spectators shouldn't addle their brains a minute more.
What Foreman has been doing all along with the works he writes, directs and designs is plumbing his own labyrinthine psyche. He's incorporating his wide range of personal symbols into a career-long play by adding one act after one act. Those unwilling to go along should avoid the farrago. Others are invited to wallow.