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Midwestern Chum

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Anyone who has ever had an office job will be able to relate to Midwestern Chum. Sarah Bewley's new play at Urban Stages parodies and almost seems to celebrate the politics and bureaucracy that can creep into any office.

What's puzzling about Midwestern Chum is that the office in question is that of a school district superintendent, but you end up not learning very much. The superintendent, Jefferson Smith (Sam Guncler) is relatively new to the job, and not accustomed to the Big City problems he has to deal with, including some of the most problematic parents, children, and lawyers imaginable.

These people are so angry, they see nothing wrong with placing curses on Smith, destroying his personal property, or preventing a fire truck from getting through after an explosion. That all happens offstage. Why are they so angry? Bewley never really tackles that issue. The closest she gets to explaining it is describing Smith as the chum of the title, something that can be thrown to the sharks.

So, instead, Bewley dramatizes that struggle. She spins a familiar and relatively tame story of a surprisingly low-voltage power struggle between Smith and the other three administrators (Gabor Morea, Maria Cellario, and Cherene Snow) who work with him. Smith has only one person on his side, but luckily it's the only one who really knows what's going on. It's the secretary, Eliana Garcia, played by Vanessa Quijas. Armed with a computer, a telephone, and seemingly unlimited amounts of inside information, she's the one frequently pulling the strings.

Director T. L. Reilly has followed Bewley's lead in focusing the story on Garcia, and placed her desk dead center, surrounded by five doors which are constantly opening or slamming shut. Sooner or later, everyone comes to Eliana. Only some get away alive. And, luckily, Quijas gives the spicy comic performance such a role needs, possessing the authority and the caginess necessary to survive in such a hostile environment. Guncler has a goofy charm that works well for his characters, and the other three actors' roles are well realized.

But with so much potential for real conflict and the opportunity to make real, substantial points about how office politics can prevent things from happening, it's a real shame Bewley doesn't deliver. The crisis facing the administrators is rather bland to begin with (trying to defuse a teacher's strike), but choosing to deal with none of it directly onstage, and then even in bits and pieces offstage doesn't make it important to the audience. That makes all the conniving and backstabbing happening onstage seem curiously out of place.

Still, much about Midwestern Chum is entertaining, and there is a fair amount of humor to be found. The play is never really dull, but it's also never really exciting. It keeps your attention, makes you smile here and there, and makes you think about how you're lucky your own job isn't quite as bad as what you're seeing onstage. And that's about it.

If that's all that Bewley wanted, she succeeded. The play works as a light, mostly forgettable comedy about workplace trials and tribulations. Though if, as the nature of the play seems to suggest, it was intended as an indictment of the state of the country's school system or the people who run it, Midwestern Chum, sadly gets failing grades.

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Midwestern Chum
Through August 30
Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: Smarttix at (212) 206-1515
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour 40 minutes with one ten-minute intermission