“Sorry, sorry, sorry.” As an adolescent, I recited this incantation on multiple occasions: When my brother dropped his ice cream cone, when my peer failed a test, when my third grade teacher tripped and fell on the ice and, of course, when my best friend suffered through her first heartbreak. My father always used to get angry with me for apologizing for problems that just weren’t my fault. But how else are you supposed to respond to something so out of your control and still convey a sense of sympathy?
After Wednesday night’s performance of “The Consultant,” a new play written by Heidi Schreck, at the Long Wharf Theater, I rethought the motivation behind my countless “I’m sorry”s. Deep underneath every fallen ice cream cone or crestfallen friend, I have felt a small piece of blame. Put more eloquently a by the young consultant, Amelia (Clare Barron), “We are all responsible in some way for everyone else’s suffering.”
And there is certainly enough suffering to go around in The Consultant. Taking place after the 2008 financial crisis, the show focuses on workers in a troubled pharmaceutical company. Their job security is always uncertain, but they also have to struggle with the all-too-normal issues of romance, ambition, altruism and family. Enter Amelia, a quirky grad student from NYU who wants to help immigrants learn English and change the world along the way — despite her immense student loans. By mistake, she is hired by the company to teach Jun Suk (Nelson Lee), a designer at the firm, better presentation skills and not to improve his English. And so, through a series of comedic coincidences, Amelia ends up trying to save Jun Suk’s job. Meanwhile, receptionist Tania (Cassie Beck) and ostentatious businessman Mark (Darren Goldstein) become caught in a romantic entanglement.
Not everyone was along for the ride. As I left the theatre, I heard one audience member say “there was something strange about the tone of the play. It was somehow artificial between the characters.” This idea struck me. She was absolutely right. From its opening flood of stage lights to its final spoken words, all of “The Consultant” implied that nothing on the stage was real or permanent. The entire set shouted “plastic,” and you could see the material everywhere, from fake glass windows to an imitation IKEA desk. The entire company, it seemed, could pick up one day and leave. The characters verged on stereotypes: the naïve, eager graduate who wants to change the world, the quickly aging receptionist who got stuck in a sub-par job, the childish, masculine businessman who sometimes objectifies women and the overworked divorcee who can’t find happiness. They revolve around each other without forming any real relationships. Together they suffer, together they laugh, and together they try to create a makeshift family, but only because the economy has stuck them together.
This artifice leaves the audience stunned, and yet, this artifice is also what makes the production theatrical gold. We have all found ourselves in relationships that rely solely on the fact that we and someone else inhabit the same environment. Work relationships, study groups, book clubs -— no one is immune, old or young. We’re all afraid of getting too close, and because of that we keep our distance. The characters in “The Consultant” may seem stereotypical, but that’s only because they play into assigned roles. In these sorts of relationships, after all, simple personas are all we have. Only when they are alone do we understand the play’s characters as more than they appear.
“The Consultant” also understands how these ordinary interactions can build into beautiful, dysfunctional, tragic families. Throughout the play, characters take on childlike or parental roles in relation to everyone else. Tania cleans up after Jun Suk after too much revelry, though she reminds him “I’m not your mother.” The office workers learn to rely on each other even while resisting true affection.
But the family is always under threat. The big, bad Boss Harold (never seen by the audience) looms over the office, firing victims one by one. The threat of his presence puts the office on edge. Whenever a phone rings (and this happens often), the characters’ emotions are pushed even further. This constant ringing and buzzing provides comedy, but it also reminds us how fragile these relationships are. At the end of the show, we are left questioning: Can work relationships survive without the office? How can you say sorry to someone classified as the work friend? You make this dysfunctional family, and wait anxiously to see how much weight it can hold. Maybe you have to justify your actions with an “I’m sorry” and take responsibility. Maybe you have to accept that some relationships are meant to simply end.