Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Amelia Acosta Powell directs with a great comic flair, mindful of the sleek, pleasant-but-remorseless tone of modern business. And Stephanie Machado stars as Tess, an adorable lab assistant who only talked to mice in her previous job. At lights-up, she has joined a high-tech firm known as The Gradient, where she will instead talk to swaggering men, to rid the world of "toxic masculinity." Her employer, one of the partners, is a brash, take-charge woman named Natalia, played by Christina Acosta Robinson with all the measured self-assuredness of any modern autocrat.
The set by Carolyn Mraz (with hypnotic projections by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson) is beautifully high-tech, with floating graphics instead of wallpaper, walls trimmed in light, and flat-screen TVs glowing with the corporate logo sizzling away on each. There's also the occasional motivational video presentation: Natalia, shown in triplicate. Her tone is brightly Orwellian, cheerily, non-judgmentally bullying heterosexual men to admit they've wronged the female population with their lack of empathy. And the clients of The Gradient seem to come in voluntarily. Or at least following some vague embarrassment in their lives with women.
However ... there's this seething undertone of flim-flam, of the preemptive flippancy of con artists. And not just among the male subjects. That same faint sneer exists inside this psycho-analytic start-up as well. The whole business model is designed to "score" male clients on their interpersonal characteristics, then feed those scores into a mathematical algorithm, and, finally, counsel the men till the scores balance out, into a safer, more sensitive relationship prospect.
Here, the interrogationsI mean counseling sessionsare usually gentle and upbeat. But they seem to carry the weight of societal condemnation, in an America of the very near future: boy meets girl, and girl immediately tries to put him on the defensive. Unlike Pride and Prejudice, there are no 19th century Boulangers, the dances where girls would gently try to evaluate their stiff and uncomfortable partners. But, just as with Mr. Darcy, it still takes several rhetorical circle dances just to get any of the men to come around. And even then the results can seem doubtful.
Stephen Cefalu, Jr. steals the show with rapid-fire montages of eight different "bad dates" in three different stages of treatment. He gives us intense, pungent little caricatures, angry dudes, stoner dudes, seemingly violent Puerto Ricans, British know-it-alls, and so on: each seen together in a string of nearly frantic blackouts, in glimpses of therapy, over the course of days or weeks. Mr. Cefalu's quick-change characterizations are dazzling and audacious, as is playwright Del Rosso's grasp of nearly frightening, cutting-edge comedy.
But sooner or later you get to someone who can game the system. And here, it's the all-too-charming Jackson, played by Yousof Sultani. He is relentless in his flirting and teasing of Tess, who gradually shows signs of surrender. The hair pomade budget, split between Mr. Sultani and Mr. Cefalu, must be through the roof. Anyway, eventually, he puts Tess on the defensive, threatening the whole system.
Everyone on stage is perfect, especially those eight guys played in blistering succession by just one guy. And William DeMeritt is splendid as a co-worker who actually does manage to be natural, funny and sensitive, all at the same time. The downside to that emerges during an office Halloween party when his costume supplies ironic visual commentary, perhaps tempting Tess into her own unpleasant self-realization. Or maybe it's thanks to that glowing Kool-Aid dispenser in the break room that things begin to spiral out of control.
It's a lot of fun, and impetuous too. Ms. Machado's final speech is a monologue distantly related to the mind-bending visual effects near the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a verbal equivalent of shooting across the universe, as the whole thing drives her mad (and she steals back the show from Mr. Cefalu). But after that, the denouement lands a bit awkwardly. Or maybe it's fine. Maybe it's ultimately a comment on the abrupt soullessness of modern business, where a 21st century girl-boss is sensitive and caring, right up till the nanosecond when she's not. Even in the capable hands of Christina Acosta Robinson as Natalia, that final blackout is mildly jarring as we in the audience wake up with a bump, to a world without all those deeply invasive algorithms.
The Gradient runs through October 24, 2021, at the Center of Contemporary Arts, 524 Trinity Ave. (just inside the University City gates, south of Delmar Blvd.), St. Louis MO For more information visit www.repstl.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association