Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Not based on what transpires inGroupthink. Goldstein's view of the public relations industry–based on his own experience, albeit a brief stint, with one such firm–is that it distorts the truth (if not outright lying), invents excuses for horrible behavior, and lacks any scruples about what harm may be done to the public viz a viz their efforts. His invented firm, ironically called Top Down Strategies, provides public relations services to a string of increasingly odious clients. The first of those bears an uncanny resemblance in both temperament and physique to the former occupant of the White House, and they get markedly worse from there. Top Down is run by a soulless pair named Mark (John Middleton) and Elaine (Joanna Harmon), who not only lack any sense of morality regarding their work, but actually seem to believe that the more despicable their clients, the greater their success. This view is born out by their latest brainstorm, a coalition given the acronym ANTI: Agitators for Natural and True Inclusivity.
The title Groupthink may be misleading. I learned about "groupthink" when I studied organizational development in graduate school. If you haven't engaged in such studies, I offer this definition from Popular Psychology: "Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people makes irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible." Often it nefariously sneaks up as conforming team members unwittingly recalibrate their own thinking to align with the rest of team. Groupthink is considered a pitfall to be avoided.
At Top Down Strategies, the problem is not "groupthink." When Mark and Elaine plow ahead with ANTI, their underlings know how wrongheaded it is. Team leader Rebecca (Lynda J. Dahl) is willing to look the other way to pay off college loans and gain status in the firm. As a Black woman, she figures she has paid more than her share of dues, so let someone else take it on the chin. The other two team members, Kevin (Damian Leverett) and David (Pedro Juan Fonseca), are truly appalled by whom they are asked to represent and what they are asked to do, and they embark on a mission to undermine their own efforts.
Groupthink was part of Six Points' inaugural New Play Reading Festival held last spring, and it quickly made the leap from that platform to this full-fledged production. The play, Goldstein's first, sets up a premise that is utterly bizarre yet, given the political landscape we have lived through in recent years, is not beyond the realm of possibility, even if it stretches that realm near its breaking point. Goldstein absolutely makes points about the dangers mercenary public relations minions and unchecked social media pose to society. That's serious stuff, and he leavens it through a comedic lens, forging Groupthink as a satire that pinpricks its subject with barbed wit.
The problem, though, is that the barbs are not quite witty enough. The humor mostly induces chuckles, rather than the hearty laughs needed to overcome the weight of the disturbing premise. Scenes that might be hilarious–such as a fraught conference call among a most unlikely group of associates–are amusing, but just that. At the same time, the constant peppering of the narrative with humor makes it hard to take the frightening truths at the base of the narrative too much to heart, and serious monologues given by Kevin and Rebecca, each declaring their stand, feel at odds with the jokey tone that pervades most of the play. That said, those monologues are well written and very well played. Throughout the play, Goldstein's dialogue is crisp, dense, and bears the whiff of authenticity that comes from someone who has lived the life he is writing about. Also, his ingenious ending is both a surprise and a headwind that sends us out of the theater with a fresh raft of questions to ponder.
In program notes, director Robert Dorfman is credited with advising Goldstein in the development of Groupthink, and Dorfman's staging reveals his understanding of the work. He moves the narrative along at a brisk clip that mirrors the fast pace of work at Top Down and the public relation firms it skewers. The office set containing Kevin, David and Rebecca's work stations and Mark's conference room actually gains an accelerating feeling of anxious energy through the course of the play, as the ANTI project gathers steam.
The heart of the play is represented by Kevin, who from the very beginning has deep misgivings about his work, even before the advent of the nightmare posed by ANTI. He waxes on about his future career working for a progressive presidential candidate with values he can stand behind. Leverett brings out Kevin's sweetness along with his strong moral fiber and innate intelligence, and makes Kevin immensely likable, if somewhat naive. Mark is his polar opposite, having lost any sense of purpose in his work other than winning, and winning big. Middleton emits Mark's relentless determination without a shred of ethics. When we see him after supposedly staying up all night to hatch a winning plan, Middleton truly has the haggard look of, and displays the manic energy of, someone in the throes of a sleep deprivation high.
Dahl is excellent as Rebecca, bringing unapologetic toughness and clarity to the forces that drive her. She makes visible the intelligence and instincts that produce results for Rebecca. Fonseca's David is somewhat of a second banana to Leverett's Kevin, bordering on the regrettable trope of the gay sidekick, but Fonseca does a fine job of fleshing out the character and having us root for him. Elaine is a bit of an enigma. It is never clear what her role in the company is, or her relationship with John for that matter, and this makes it difficult for Harmon, a fine actor, to really deliver a sense of what she is about. Her English accent feels like an unnecessary distraction, though it serves to distinguish Elaine from another briefly seen character, Stevens, who is also played by Harmon.
The set by Michael Hoover aptly creates the sterile environment common to contemporary workplaces, adorned with bands of poorly matched colors that look like the output of an overpaid office decorator. Barb Portinga's costumes are well suited to each character, with the difference between Elaine's and Rebecca's attire attesting to the difference in rank and class that keeps these two at odds. Dietrich Poppen's lighting, Peter Morrow's sound design, and Tom Burgess' projections all serve to enhance the production.
There is a lot to like in Groupthink in this sterling production by Six Points. It makes strong points about forces, generally unseen, that exist only to make their masters wealthy, while blurring the lines between truth and fiction, and unleashing mayhem across society. For anyone keeping up with current events, this is not news. In fact, Kevin's belief that the truth will be the undoing of the clients hiding behind the banner of ANTI may date the play, for we have had ample evidence in the past two years that truth has little to do with public opinion. Groupthink is still a young play, and continued work could make it more sparkling as satire and more potent as commentary on society in thrall of image at the expense of truth. Kudos to Six Points for providing it with a launching pad.
Groupthink runs through August 28, 2022, at the Six Points Theater (formerly Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company), Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25 - $40; $15 Artist and Student (with valid ID) Rush. For tickets and information, call 651-647-4315 or visit www.sixpointstheater.org.
Playwright: Matthew Goldstein; Director: Robert Dorfman; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Barb Portinga; Lighting Design: Dietrich Poppen; Sound Design: Peter Morrow; Projections: Tom Burgess; Properties Design: Casey Williams; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Technical Director: Carl Schoenborn; Stage Manager: Miranda Shunkwiler.
Cast: Lynda J. Dahl (Rebecca), Pedro Juan Fonseca (David), Joanna Harmon (Elaine/Stevens), Damian Leverett (Kevin), John Middleton (Mark).