The final production of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks Festival of new plays, Rachel Hoeffel’s “Quail” demands reflection. In the moment of performance, the show seems like a random collection of comic bits, amusing but unstructured as it tosses up one quirky scene after another. But the bizarre habits of the play’s lawyers, clients and intrepid lone office assistant are not as scattershot as they appear. Hoeffel has crafted logic that cannot fully be grasped until her tale of a young woman escaping workplace drudgery has been finished, only then revealing a touching understanding of how difficult it can be to live a life of meaning while trying to make ends meet.
Not that everything in the play is original. Contemporary comedy has no shortage of wacky offices like the one where attorneys Dean (Gerry Bamman) and Alan (Everett Quinton) spend more time pestering their assistant, Arlene Quail (Elizabeth Meriwether), than practicing law. Director Kip Fagan continues the trend of staging such shenanigans with deadpan seriousness, so that the characters are not aware of how ridiculous they are.
Bamman particularly proves the value of such an approach. He makes Dean — whose endless smoking and refusal to speak to his wife are some of the play’s key running gags — utterly unfazed. When it’s time to sing for Arlene’s birthday, for instance, Bamman doesn’t let a smoker’s hack stop him. He just coughs to the tune of “Happy Birthday,” then returns to work. And when Arlene has to resuscitate him, Bamman doesn’t register his brush with death. He just asks for a diet soda and seems annoyed that he has to get up off the floor.
Bamman’s unflappable irritability gives the play an anchor, as does David Evans Morris’ set, which puts Dean in a private office. Often, his muffled lines come from behind glass, which tells us that power in this play comes from the man in the smoky chamber.
It’s crucial that “Quail” keep such a power balance defined, since Arlene’s resistance to it is the central conflict. But the slow revelation of that conflict is what differentiates the play from so many other clockwatcher comedies.
Unlike most characters who hate their workaday lives, Arlene barely understands that she’s unhappy. In a charming perf, Meriwether — who wrote the recent office satire “The Mistakes Madeline Made” — uses a sing-song delivery, confused pauses and spastic movements to suggest that Arlene is just blundering through.
Yet she is awakening all the same. Each of her bizarre encounters in the office — from a tryst with a young client (Benjamin Pelteson) to a conversation with a restaurant owner (Zuleyma Guevara) about leukemia — suggests ways in which life outside the office is more significant.
But since Arlene lacks self-awareness, these scenes initially seem like silly diversions instead of the impetus for change. At first we have no clue that the production will have any conflict, because there is no indication that anyone is unhappy or that there is any problem to be solved.
Therefore, when Arlene finally does start to yearn for human connection, sex and the ability to help people, many elements of the production take on new meaning.
Dean’s cigarettes, their smoke seeping through an office whose windows have been painted shut, transform into a symbol of Arlene’s emotional suffocation. Her supply-closet dalliances carry loneliness beneath their one-liners about cramped space. The play keeps a breezy tone, but it gets laced with sadness.
Really, though, that sadness was always there. “Quail” invites us to consider what we missed while we were chuckling at things we superficially understood.