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ONE OF THE NICE ONES by Erik Patterson | Echo Theater Company
In Erik Patterson's One of the Nice Ones, what greets us as benign workplace comedy quickly descends into black psychological burlesque. A wary social relevance leaves a lingering afterburn that has helped its world premiere, at Echo Theater Company's Atwater Village space, extend through August 28.
Artistic Director Chris Fields's staging brings the play's four characters into sharp relief as it sounds a range of themes from quirky office politics to crippling adolescent anguish. Echo helped Patterson develop the script and that intimacy is evidenced in the production's success at scaling the tricky emotional topography that shifts between anarchic farce and heartbreaking drama.
In a conference room of a national weight loss program's branch office, a manager, Roger (Graham Hamilton), is meeting with Tracy (Rebecca Gray), the most recent addition to the sales team. Although Roger presents this as a standard performance review, Tracy asks about rumors of impending layoffs, which would certainly mark her as first to go. He assures her no cutbacks have been discussed, but then admits that isn't true. It won't be the last of the lies. In Patterson's image-modification company, duplicity, manipulation, and self-delusion are the coping mechanisms that have become the operating principle.
This opening scene also introduces a fearless comic style. Tracy, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic, quickly seems unstable, sabotaging her performance review before it can begin by interrupting and accusing Roger of a range of sins. He dismisses her assertion that he wants to have sex with her, then agrees and despite clarion warnings that she can't be trusted, believes her promise not to tell anyone. He hoists her onto the interview table where they fuse in unnatural coupling, flapping about as if being electrocuted. Before Roger can zip up Tracy threatens to expose his act as sexual abuse unless he gets the company to cover a medical procedure she needs.
Tracy's lie is confirmed as she rises from her wheelchair to explain that she has Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID). Some afflicted with BIID want to amputate a healthy limb to validate an unhealthy self-image. In her case, legs that she long ago blamed for years of promiscuity needed to die. Now she has found a Mexican hospital where an operation will make them inoperable.
It's a bizarre and original launch for Patterson's play that, thanks to the talents of Hamilton and the daring Ms. Gray, is as hysterical as it is harrowing. We shift to the branch office's telemarketing room, where Tracy is trying to improve her pitch and up her conversion rate. The more experienced Neal (Rodney To) offers a tip while gaming on his smartphone: don't let them hang up. It's enough to inspire Tracy to go for the deep personal connection, and permit Patterson one of his stylistic detours into the wounded soul behind the false front. As seriously as a Williams heroine, Tracy explains how, as a teenager, her mother's commandment to be "one of the nice ones" collided with the cruelty of other girls at school. She would fill the psychic crack opened by their incessant teasing with regular pleasing of boys beneath the bleachers. We, like the woman on the other end of the line, sense the story is true. She agrees to come in for evaluation.
When a woman (Tara Karsian) arrives at the appointed time, Tracy is unavailable. Roger and Neal conduct the evaluation. In another of Patterson's emotional deep dives, she responds to Roger's pressure to admit her lack of self-esteem by telling her story of the heartbreak that led to her weight gain. While the story has the ring of truth, the woman quickly reveals that she is not who they think she is. She is not a potential client there to be evaluated but a corporate rep there to evaluate Roger after charges were made about abuses.
The play winds to an end with its unusually stark mix of comedy and drama intact. The duplicity, while consistently laughable, is serious. It's symptomatic of a world in which pressures to be something with mass appeal overwhelms the innate right to celebrate one's individuality. Credit Fields and his actors (casting by Meg Fister) with putting on stage everything the playwright put on the page … and more.
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ONE OF THE NICE ONES
by ERIK PATTERSON
directed by CHRIS FIELDS
ECHO THEATRE COMPANY
July 13-August 21, 2016
(Opened 7/16, Rev’d 8/7m)
CAST Rebecca Gray, Graham Hamilton, Rodney To, Tara Karsian; u/s Eric Gutierrez
PRODUCTION Amanda Knehans, set; Elena Flores, costumes; Chris Wojcieszyn, lights; Jeff Gardner, sound; Meg Fister, casting; Emily Burst/Jessie Vane, stage management
HISTORY Originally developed in Echo's Playwrights LAB, Jennifer Chambers, director; produced by Chris Fields & Jesse Cannady, and David Phillip Fishman. World premiere