There’s something like a story in Adam Bock’s “The Thugs,” but facts only emerge in occasional bursts. Otherwise, this dark office comedy consists of the small talk and long silences that make up the bulk of any workday. But Bock and the creatives at Soho Rep have crafted this throwaway time so well that it swells with implied meaning, inviting us to find secrets in the gaps between real conversations.
The production makes everything so generic that it becomes surreal. David Korins fills his set with cheap, OfficeMax-style furniture, and Ben Stanton lights it with horrible fluorescent bulbs. The first scene serves only to present this cave: the lights come up, a cell phone rings on a table, the lights go down. Welcome to the dead zone.
With careful timing, Bock gives us the generalities of this world long before the specifics. We meet seven workers, and for 10 minutes they’re pure types. There’s an outcast in polyester pants who wants credit for making the coffee; a boss who answers every question with bug-eyed exasperation; and a couple of slackers who pretend to work while they make fun of everyone else.
The 60-minute play is half-over before we know these people are temps in a law office. Bock’s time-release approach asks us to see them first as Everymen, representing all of us with their squabbles, bag lunches and smoke breaks.
Director Anne Kauffman and her stellar ensemble find humor in all the mundanity. A quick sigh, for instance, or hasty grab for a pencil sharpener exposes the characters’ boundless resentment for one another. Nor does any thesp sabotage the material by trying to make it showier. Moments are underplayed with the subtlety you need to avoid getting busted by the boss.
Before these shlubs become pure comic fodder, however, a sinister streak emerges. Half-finished sentences start mentioning dead bodies, and we see the edges of a murder spree within the firm. Expressions of fear accompany the pauses, and dread permeates the stage.
In a testament to both director and scribe, the tonal change is as imperceptible as it is sweeping. When characters get on the upstage elevator, one eventually fears they might never come back. Worse, our knowledge has been so well controlled that we can only suspect something awful. We can never define it.
Tension builds until one speech almost deflates everything. With uncharacteristic eloquence, a character makes a plea to just ignore the bad news. It sounds suspiciously like a thesis statement, implying that society uses its idle chatter and wasted time to avoid the uncomfortable truth.
That’s a conventional idea for such a formally surprising play, and Bock is equally old-fashioned when he thrusts some major action into his conclusion. The gesture feels so out of place that it jars the show’s rhythm more than deepening its insights. In “The Thugs,” at least, nothing is better than something.