You can practically smell the bruised fruit, not to mention the bruised egos, in “Tabletop,” Rob Ackerman’s docudrama about a fraught workday at a TV commercial studio. Set in the fiefdom of an autocratic ad director who specializes in shots that make pizzas, frozen beverages and French fries glisten tantalizingly in 30-second TV spots, “Tabletop” aspires to be the “Glengarry Glen Ross” of the ad production world, a brutal and comic look at the dehumanizing dynamics of this particular link on the capitalist food chain.
Alas, Ackerman is no David Mamet; he lacks that playwright’s gift for creating characters that are both pungently specific to a particular milieu and imbued with dimensions that resonate beyond it. A veteran of the industry in question, the playwright vividly re-creates the specific tensions and conflicts of this insular sphere, but he fails to make them meaningful — or even interesting, unless you’ve always wondered how those shots of cascading cola or frosty ice cream come about. In the end, watching the play is like spending the day fretting over the little humiliations and inequities endemic to someone else’s job. Who needs that? Most of us find those of our own quite sufficient.
The verisimilitude of director Connie Grappo’s production is certainly impressive. Dean Taucher’s set impeccably re-creates the jumble of a working studio: the tangles of electric cords, the jerry-rigged spotlights, the odd contraption used to position a piece of fruit or a frozen drink just so. The studio’s current job involves both, as the crew struggles for the perfect shot of a pink concoction being lusciously poured into a cup surrounded by a cornucopia of sparkling fruit.
The property master, Jeffrey (Dean Nolen), is a snide character who takes pleasure in belittling the gofer Ron (Jeremy Webb) when he’s not taunting Dave (Jack Koenig) about his unseen new girlfriend. Dave’s obvious use of noncommital pronouns, and Jeffrey’s pronounced homophobia, telegraph clearly that Dave’s girl will turn out to be a boy. There’s also some bitterness between Dave and Oscar (Harvy Blanks) about a soured partnership in a store.
But most of the play’s conflict is centered around the hapless Ron, an idealistic youngster with a natural talent for the biz as well as a propensity for making unfortunate gaffes that rile the big boss, hot ad director Marcus Nelson (Rob Bartlett). Running interference between the beleaguered Ron and Marcus is the sharp-edged office manager Andrea (Elizabeth Hanly Rice).
Tension builds as the crew scrambles to prepare a reshoot for Marcus, who only emerges from his office to berate vulgarly his underlings and roll the camera. The crew approaches the task of setting up the shot with the seriousness of generals planning a major campaign, and we inevitably laugh at their agonized reaction to a blemish on an apple.
This laughter, however, is problematic: It sets up a distance between the audience and the characters that precludes deep sympathy — the playwright is poking fun at their obsessive, unironical attitudes toward the weird minutiae of their work and they inevitably become diminished in our eyes.
More problematic is the formulaic nature of the play’s various conflicts, and the contrived and somewhat hysterical resolution to the central drama involving rising neophyte Ron squaring off with the evil boss Marcus.
Despite finely detailed, convincing performances, the cast can’t smooth over these flaws or supply depths the playwright hasn’t written into the characters. Ackerman hasn’t found the proper balance between dialogue that realistically brings to life this workplace and dialogue that gives us access to larger truths about the characters. (The play is excessively and unilluminatingly freighted with technical jargon.) Play and playwright seem more enamored of the gritty, oddball glamour of the work environment than the workers. Maybe Ackerman should consider a career in human resources.