Cynthia Nixon, a busy, bankable thesp who’s bagged Tony, Emmy, and Grammy Awards since appearing in her first film at age 12 and making her Broadway debut at 14, makes an assured directorial debut in the New Group’s “Rasheeda Speaking,” an office drama with a race-baiting theme by Chicago-based scribe Joel Drake Johnson. Dianne Wiest and Tonya Pinkins, two of the finest actors in the business, ably assist in Nixon’s first helming effort, although why these talented pros chose to waste their gifts on this mean and nasty play is something of a mystery.
The battlefield of this drama is the reception area of a doctor’s office. Allen Moyer’s set efficiently defines the space: two adjacent desks, two sets of bookshelves, and a small coffee station shared by the two secretaries who work here. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design captures that cold, unforgiving glare of doctors’ offices everywhere. Truly, an unlovely place.
Ileen Van Meter (Wiest), the newly designated office manager, is readable at a glance: a modest little mouse, kind, loyal, super-efficient, and a true friend to man. Jaclyn Spaulding (Pinkins) is the office diva, a large, handsome black woman with a spectacular hairdo and a real attitude. Mousy Ileen admires Jaclyn’s flamboyant style — “your humor … your drama … your stories … your yammering” — and is delighted to have her back after a five-day absence for some vague complaint about the “toxins” in the air.
Through no fault of her own, Ileen has landed in the middle of a savage battle in the perennial war of office politics. It’s a well-known fact that Wiest can play anything, from Chekhov to Arthur Miller, and her Oscar-winning performance in “Bullets Over Broadway” is a classic. Here she displays her mastery at playing sweet neurotic wrecks like Ileen, who is one of those timid souls people love to push around. It’s a rich, full-bodied performance, from the meek little voice to the gently curved spine that defines a born victim, forced to live and doomed to perish in a cold, cruel world.
Ileen’s loathesome boss, Dr. David Williams (Darren Goldstein, who knows what he’s doing), is desperate to fire Jaclyn, but without running afoul of “those superficial laws about harassment” that Human Resources is sure to hit him with. So he badgers and bullies Ileen into playing the spy for him.
Ileen is hopeless as an informant, and when Jaclyn gets wind of it, she makes her pay dearly, tormenting the poor woman without mercy. Jaclyn is as sadistic and manipulative a bully as Dr. Williams, but with Pinkins having a comic field day in the role, she’s also a joy to behold. Lips pursed in silent rage, eyes blazing with intelligence, she makes Ileen the surrogate villain for a lifetime of personal and racial indignities and deliberately drives her crazy. It’s terribly unfair of her, but, damn, Pinkins makes her funny.
The play is a clever if unsubtle study of a seismic power shift in the office hierarchy. From what we see of her professional skills, Jaclyn is one of those petty tyrants more often encountered in low-paying government jobs than in private offices like this one. Nursing her private grievances, she shirks her work and badgers powerless victims like Rose Saunders, the frail elderly patient played by the always-welcome Patricia Connolly.
But Johnson doesn’t stop at studying the social dynamics of office politics. He artificially imposes a racial component by manipulating his players into taking racist positions and making racist comments that are off the point and out of character.
It’s possible that Jaclyn might justify her cruelty toward Ileen by projecting a lifetime of race-based grievances onto her blameless victim. That would be incredibly stupid of her, of course, and no more believable than the crude racist slurs made by her employer. But truthful characterizations and realistic behavior are obviously too much to expect from a scribe with a political agenda. Even old Mrs. Saunders, who can barely walk, has to jump on the bandwagon with the unlikely observation she makes to Jaclyn that her rudeness is probably “your way to get revenge for slavery.”
Or maybe it’s revenge on her creator for robbing her of all her intelligence.