Less than two months ago, Annie Weisman made her major-theater debut with the La Jolla Playhouse production of her first full-length play, “Be Aggressive.” The next work by this Southern Californian native in her late 20s, “Hold Please,” is being staged up the road at South Coast Rep, which commissioned this work about two generation of secretaries. Both pieces present her formidable strengths, particularly her sparklingly sharp wit and her ability to craft a convincing milieu with jargon-filled dialogue. But, alas, both possess the same fundamental weakness as well — a narrative uneasiness, a sense that the story itself is a labored afterthought to the setting.
In the case of “Hold Please,” this problem is a bit more glaring than in “Be Aggressive,” in part because this play has a lot more going on but with less shape. In “Hold Please,” four female secretaries begin by overthrowing one of their bosses with accusations of sexual harassment, but they soon find themselves splintering into various alliances based on age and attitude. Exactly where all this is supposed to go is never made clear, and the second act introduces a whole new storyline so that there’s something pushing us toward an ending.
All we’re really left with are the characters themselves. Fortunately, they’re distinct enough to be entertaining and representative enough to be interesting. The older women started working at this office — exactly what the business is remains irrelevant — about the time the two 25-year-old characters were born. Agatha (Kimberly K. King) is prim and professional to the extreme, well-versed in the “clerical arts” and uptight chair of the powerful “Behavioral Balance Committee.” She’s also a very big busybody, sending out her longtime, less judgmental colleague Grace (Linda Gehringer) to spy on the untrustworthy young’uns when Agatha feels there’s information she doesn’t know. King and Gehringer are exceptionally compelling comic actresses.
The younger generation is Jessica (Jillian Bach), who has a new career goal in every scene, and Erika (Tessa Auberjonois), a less ambitious sexpot type who’s been having a secret affair with a partner at the firm. These younger women are masters of the new technology, and the early scene in which they carry on their own conversation while answering phones and taking messages is thoroughly entertaining.
While Weisman never lays out a satisfying story, she does saturate her play with an engrossingly satirical office lingo and plenty of politically incorrect gender politics. These women are far from victims of an exploitative environment defined by men; they’re much more likely to victimize each other. They can become close, too, revealing their emotional longings in ways men would not, but in the next scene they’re displaying their capacity for cattiness. When Erika tries to teach Agatha how the new phone system works, for example, Weisman captures an awful lot of truth, even if it doesn’t add up to much.
Watching all this can be fun and provocative even without a coherent arc. Weisman really is quite the wit, and most of her dialogue has a dynamic specificity to it. The office world is fully fleshed out, thanks in large measure to a solid production directed by Mark Rucker. Aram Arslanian’s sound design is particularly evocative, turning typewriters and fax machines into percussive instruments accompanying the scene-change music.
But everything here, from the language to the characters to the designs, is waiting to be put to a more dramatic use. “Hold Please” is a play about power in the workplace, but Weisman never invests the little power plays within it with the crispness they need. Her language is extremely sharp — but at this point her dramaturgy isn’t.
Opened, reviewed Sept. 21, 2001; closes Oct. 21. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.