The first of two new David Williamson plays for 2005, after which the master storyteller has announced plans to retire from the theater, “The Operator” is by no means his greatest work but it’s terrifically entertaining. Though one-dimensional, the play is well suited to the intimate Ensemble Theater and is rendered here with fine perfs, including the playwright’s son, Rory Williamson, making his mainstage debut in the title role.
The “operator” is a familiar figure from any workplace where the opportunity for promotion exists. Generally defined by finely tuned charm and salesmanship skills that conceal actual laziness and lack of talent, the operator tends to spend more time working colleagues than actually working. Exuberantly inhabited by the younger Williamson, Jake is exactly that.
Jake and Melissa (Katrina Milosevic) are employed in the product development division of a gym equipment company. Despite her plump, unsophisticated appearance, Melissa is diligent and talented. Jake looks the part but expends his energy claiming Melissa’s achievements as his own and tapping other colleagues for information to get ahead. Irena (Melissa Gray), the managing director’s lesbian niece, just wants a comfy job that pays for her annual trips to Europe. It’s the job of Alex (Michael Ross) to manage this trio while balancing the needs of the boss, Douglas (Henri Szeps).
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After Melissa develops a home gym system, Alex permits the team to go into production if they can fulfill an order for 30,000 units at the price stipulated by the unseen design and production divisions. When the order proves difficult to fill at that price, Jake takes it upon himself to reduce the unit cost but covers his tracks by forcing Melissa to sign the order and the courier docket, making it look like her work.
When Alex and Douglas discover the team has cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s Melissa’s word against Jake’s and, having done the groundwork, Jake stays while Melissa is asked to walk. Alex finds the circumstances of her exit untenable and leaves, too. As so often happens in life, the operator triumphs.
But it doesn’t stop there. After all, this is a David Williamson play, where capitalistic greed cannot thrive and a yearning for the simple life will always prevail. Jake eventually gets his comeuppance, while Melissa and Alex find comfort in each other’s arms, eschew the pressures of 80-hour corporate weeks and take over management of a plant nursery.
The play’s backdrop is, rather obviously, a huge $100 bill. The set consists of three Herman Miller chairs around a desk and two white Barcelona lounges. It looks very slick and contempo; ditto the costumes, a welcome change from the ugly, tired staging of Williamson’s previous modern show at the Ensemble, “Birthrights.”
The second of Williamson’s new plays, “Influence,” premieres March 19 at Sydney Theater Company, with a Melbourne Theater Company run to follow in June.