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What We’re Up Against

Theresa Rebeck's Magic premiere is a juicy black comedy with the potential to travel as widely as the TV scenarist and novelist's prior stage intrigue, "Mauritius."

Ben - Rod Gnapp
Eliza - Sarah Nealis
Weber - James Wagner
Stu - Warren Keith David
Janice - Pamela Gaye Walker

“They told me it wasn’t like this anymore. Why is it still like this?” bemoans the central figure late in “What We’re Up Against,” her head slamming into an architecture firm’s glass ceiling yet again. Theresa Rebeck’s Magic premiere probes how sexism remains well-entrenched in the upscale workplace, not least when pitting women against each other in a boys’ club atmosphere. While some of its edges could still be sharpened a tad, this juicy black comedy has the potential to travel as widely as the TV scenarist and novelist’s prior stage intrigue “Mauritius.”

Like that work, her latest overdoes the Mamet-speak a bit at first as trigger-tempered hotshot Ben (Rod Gnapp) and scotch-soaked supervisor Stu (Warren Keith David) vent expletive-riddled spleen at the “bad attitude” and other perceived crimes of the “dishonest little manipulator” shoe-horned into their division. She is Eliza (Sarah Nealis), hired fresh out of school by unseen, feared company chief David because (we later learn) he considers her “eight times smarter than the boneheads” in the “bottom-feeder” department she’s assigned to.

Far from inspired, said boneheads resent her presence. In turn, Eliza resents being given nothing to do six months into her hire. To prove that’s a result of sexism, she has submitted a solution to a $6 million strip-mall redesign’s previously insoluble bugaboo — crediting it to Weber (James Wagner), a vacuous “golden boy” of the type who has no real ideas of his own yet will inevitably arse-kiss his way up any ladder, and who has even less seniority than she does. Of course, Stu admires “his” design, then is infuriated when Eliza reveals the deception.

This only gets her in worse straits, even with the company’s sole non-coffee-delivering “other girl” — Janice (Pamela Gaye Walker), a comparative veteran considered “team player” precisely because her stale ideas and overeager deference flatter the menfolk.

“Patience is a virtue,” she advises exasperated Eliza, who ripostes “Is it?” Ironically, dyed-in-wool chauvinist Ben proves the only person here ultimately bright (or not blinded by self-interest) enough to appreciate Eliza’s “threatening” genuine talent.

Rebeck needn’t have dumbed down some architectural jabber so much — we can grasp Weber and Janice lack creative inspiration without the latter announcing “a coat of paint” as a major design stroke. But Magic a.d. Loretta Greco’s sharply cast, paced and designed (Skip Mercier’s sleek set rolling a few pieces about to represent various offices) production makes the most of a satisfying text whose white-collar skullduggery climaxes in an oddly redemptive quadruple-cross.

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What We're Up Against

Magic Theater, San Francisco; 160 seats; $60 top

Production: A Magic Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Loretta Greco. Set, Skip Mercier; costumes, Alex Jaeger; lighting, Sarah Sidman; sound, Sara Huddleston; production stage manager, Danielle Callaghan. Reviewed Feb. 10, 2011. Opened Feb. 9. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast: Ben - Rod Gnapp
Eliza - Sarah Nealis
Weber - James Wagner
Stu - Warren Keith David
Janice - Pamela Gaye Walker

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