If you're dying to see a play about labor relations but you can't score tickets to The Pajama Game, you now have another option. That's not to say that Joe Roland's On the Line, which just opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre, has much to do with the Adler-Ross musical Roundabout is reviving uptown. But if vapid disagreements about trivial issues leading to professional and personal unrest are up your alley, you could probably do worse. You could also certainly do better.
On the Line, which counts Mike Nichols as one of its producers, is resolutely nutritious theatre, designed to remind people of the dangers of greedy employers, the benefits of hard-working labor unions, and the stresses that can be put on friendships when those two parties can't agree. It's perhaps best not to ask if anyone today needs to be reminded of this, though Roland's play, which has been directed with diffuse efficacy by Peter Sampieri, doesn't particularly care in any event: Nothing can stop it from steamrolling over its story and characters in pursuit of its points.
It's thus appropriate that so much here is so flat, beginning with the trio of men at the show's center. They've known each other since grade school, and currently work together at the plant that provides the primary employment for their town. Their union is always on hand to safeguard them from injury and protect their wages, but a looming strike threatens the union's ability to keep the employees financially safe. Emotionally, the workers face even bigger problems: The company has started making offers to certain workers for management positions so they'll have bargaining chips to use in upcoming negotiations.
And, yes, the trio's own bonds are tested by just this issue. Will one betray the others' trust to provide for his own family? How will the others react? And, when the chips are down, will even the staunchest management detractor come around and realize that his buddies are more important than his salary? Such questions only have relevance when the outcome of the play is in doubt. But so much is made of the men's opinions about labor and management that to not test their convictions would be false, and to do so would be cliché.
So it's a lose-lose situation for everyone, starting with Roland; his strong ear for the men's blue-collar vernacular is wasted on such mawkish mundanities. The show's first 10 minutes, in which the men describe their lengthy history together, are particularly out of step with the rest of the show stylistically: This time is intended to acquaint us with the men who will soon be at each other's throats, but they're far more lively during this section than they are later.
Sampieri tries to highlight the men's tragic conflictions in his staging, but his options are limited: There aren't many ways to elicit much of anything fresh out of material this staid. Michael McGarty's unit set, which must depict the factory, the local bar, and the men's homes with only slight changes in light, is similarly half-hearted. John Zibell, as family man Jimmy, and David Prete, as single father Mikey, bravely tackle the uphill struggle of bringing these barely-characters to life.
The third actor, playing pro-union Dev, comes across best. He's got the most significant journey to make, from tacit agreement with the powers that be to the personal acceptance that will let him live as much of his life as he can with his friends still in it. He's loud, obnoxious, and set in his ways, but there's something of a softy underneath that rock-hard shell. It's the closest thing On the Line gets to a great character. And, wouldn't you know, Roland himself plays him. At least he gave himself something interesting to do.
On the Line