Review: “The Consultant” (Signal Ensemble Theatre)

Joe McCauley, Ariel Begley/Photo: Johnny Knight
Joe McCauley, Courtney Jones/Photo: Johnny Knight

Show: The Consultant

Company: Signal Ensemble Theatre

Venue: Signal Ensemble Theatre (1802 W Berenice Ave)

Die Roll: 2

At the end of thirteen years of making theatre, Signal Ensemble Theatre is closing its doors at the end of the current run of Heidi Schreck’s “The Consultant”.  It wasn’t the play originally scheduled to close out this season, but it is the one that marks the end of an era.  Sadly, it isn’t the high note that one might want as a company’s swan song.

I find that corporate America is something difficult to represent on stage.  I find this to especially true in small cast productions.  That’s largely because corporations tend to be made of all sorts of people, not just four to eight individuals (in this show’s case, five).  The hustle, bustle, red tape, gossip, middle management, upper management, deadlines, spreadsheets, and all the rest don’t transfer to the stage terribly well.  Schreck’s play tries to alleviate some of the inherent difficulties by having the play take place in only isolated rooms within the offices of Sutton, Feingold and McGrath, an advertising agency that specializes in the pharmaceutical industry.  Limiting the setting of the play means we only meet the people who come through the lobby or who go into one specific conference room.  One might wonder why nobody other than the five characters ever goes through the lobby, or why the only other person ever discussed is the presumed executive in charge.  I guess you can make the leap in logic that since there were recently layoffs at the company, most of the employees were purged.  Just to make this review something other than a list of nit-picks, I’ll give the playwright that.

Ariel Begley, Ben Chang/Photo: Johnny Knight
Ariel Begley, Ben Chang/Photo: Johnny Knight

Before I go any further, let me say that Ensemble’s ensemble members who appear in this cast are all very capable and do a good job with their characters.  It is not their fault that only two of those characters are at all interestingly written.  Nor is it the fault of the director, Ronan Marra, that the playwright created a gallery of generally unlikable individuals.

Basically, this play seems unfinished.  I know that it is a published work, and that it has had productions elsewhere, but the piece is comprised of a number of scenes that each on their own seem like something that could be the initial moments of a longer, better work.  This play reminded me of an exercise I once had to do as part of a playwriting workshop.  We were given a setting and a couple of characters.  We had to write five short scenes, each of which was to be the first scene of a different play, but with the same people in it and the same setting.  “The Consultant” feels like Schreck did that same exercise and then slammed her starting scenes together consecutively.  It is a work that goes nowhere.  It starts over and over again, but never proceeds.  I’m often excited when I see the kernel of a good play hiding within a larger, rougher work.  Here I see so many kernels that I feel like I got to the bottom of a bowl of popcorn and all that’s left is what remained unpopped.

Joe McCauley, Courtney Jones, and Ben Chang/Photo: Johnny Knight
Joe McCauley, Courtney Jones, and Ben Chang/Photo: Johnny Knight

Joe McCauley’s character, Mark, has a couple of really solid scenes.  One is about roses and their perceived meaning.  Another is a phone call with his mother.  Either could launch an interesting play.  Instead they are shoehorned into a play that ostensibly is about a 39-year-old designer who has anger issues and a bad case of nerves.  Jun Suk (Ben Chang) is at risk of losing his job so he is seeing a consultant who is supposed to be able to help him in crafting an effective presentation that will save his job.  Enter Amelia (Ariel Begley), the woefully under-qualified titular consultant.  She tries to help this man who has absolutely no redeemable qualities for reasons that aren’t really clear or compelling.  Really, none of the characters do enough to make us embrace them and care about their fate.  So, when another round of layoffs occurs, the one emotional reaction in the audience is thankfulness that the end is nigh.

I feel bad for Signal Ensemble.  They have had a solid run of doing good work.  This isn’t the way I’d want to see them end.  If you have a warm spot in your heart for their past work, and respect the members of the ensemble, then you may want to take this show in to witness the skills of Begley, McCauley, and Courtney Jones in action.  Otherwise, it may be best to remember the group as they were, rather than as they are now.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Signal Ensemble ends not with a bang, but a whimper

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”