Boy, talk about getting some big guns to kick off your playwriting debut! Inspired, perhaps, by Meryl Streep’s launch of Sarah Jones, Mike Nichols lined up some of his Broadway producer friends to showcase the double-barreled talents of Joe Roland, an actor-scribe who studied under Nichols at the New Actors Workshop. To make it even chummier, Roland teams up onstage with two other Workshop grads in “On the Line,” his blue-collar play about three best buddies whose longtime friendship is put to the test during a labor crisis at the factory where they work on the assembly line.
Roland takes his time outlining the bonds of friendship that define the dead-end lives of Dev (Joe Roland), Mikey (David Prete) and Jimmy (John Zibell), who bonded in first grade by beating up their classmates and terrorizing their teachers. Back then, Dev was the tough little guy with the quick-trigger temper, Mikey the glib-tongued con artist and Jimmy the kid who was too big and too smart for his own good.
In the here and now — which Michael McGarty’s rough brick set vaguely defines as a generic working-class industrial town — the three are still best friends, working in the same union shop and hanging out in bars and pool halls where everybody knows their names and their history.
Despite his belligerent manner, Dev is a happy man, content with his job and secure in his friendships. “It’s just I know who I am” is how he explains it, in Roland’s straightforward, respectful portrayal. “I got this sense of being a real god-damned person.”
Dev is not an introspective kind of guy, but he’s far from dumb. When his plant goes on strike, he’s quick to suspect the factory owner of an underhanded power play to betray his workers and break the back of the union. Happy to have a tangible target for his anger, Dev becomes a fire-breathing union activist, using his colorful dese-and-dose vocabulary to harass management and galvanize the striking workers.
Mikey and Jimmy, who have families to support, share Dev’s suspicions, but take a longer-range view of the labor dispute. And when one of them goes over to management, Dev goes ape-shit.
Although Zibell and Prete play their roles with heartbreaking sincerity, neither character can answer Dev’s argument. “It’s not a grudge,” he explains of his raging antagonism toward the traitor. “It’s a system of beliefs like a religion. It’s got two commandments: You don’t fuck your friends, and you don’t cross the line.”
Dramatically, the conflict between the friends would play more effectively if the labor-management issues were not outlined in such nonspecific terms. Yes, this could be any strike in any factory town from Providence, R.I., to Silicon Valley. But by taking such a broad, simplistic view of the complicated dynamics that have all but transformed a century of labor history, Roland undercuts the impact of his own argument.
The loyalty issue on which the play hangs its dramatic crisis would surely resonate with auds in industrial towns throughout the country. But if there are touring plans afoot, helmer Peter Sampieri’s production could stand a more stringent level of professionalism. On the most basic level, the undefined settings and lack of ambient sound create dead spots. And even allowing for the fact that the show is in its early days, the three performers seem uneasy onstage — not at all the asshole buddies who have known one another since first grade.
Any play that asks us to respect good honest work needs to show us what it looks like.