San Diego Depending on who does the defining, Erika and Jessica are either semi-permanent or entry-level clerical workers at Solomon, Greenspan, Sachs. In their mid-twenties, they see themselves as semi-permanent and fast-tracking toward their chosen career, whatever it turns out to be (Jessica can't choose between sports law or becoming the first artist to rap about things secretarial). A sense of entitlement underpins their views. "This isn't the '90s," Erika proclaims at one point. Asked what that means, she boasts, "I have options."
Grace and Agatha have been at the firm for decades -- Agatha proudly sports her sterling Tiffany scarf pin, for 25 years of service. They're from the 9 to 5 generation of feminists. They fought the workplace wars: equal play, harassment-free conditions, respect and dignity. Their idealism's long gone, but they still demand "a purely professional environment" and "a place to succeed on our own terms." As Agatha and Grace try to hold the fort, they clash, in passive-aggressive ways, with naïve, "entry-level" Erika and Jessica.
Annie Weisman's funny, slyly critical Hold Please has roles for only four actors, but the offstage characters are as vivid. Xavier got a golden-parachute, true, but got tossed on a false charge. Diana, the new 24-year-old boss, sounds like a goose-stepping, corporate robot: she demands "efficiency estimates," a euphemism for downsizing, and is writing a motivational book, WE CAN DO WAY WAY MORE THAN THEY TELL US WE CAN.
We never know what the company does -- a law firm? -- and never see the CEO either. According to the Old Testament, King Solomon had a harem of 700 wives. Mr. Solomon -- of Solomon, Greenspan, Sachs -- may threaten that record. He's taken sexual liberties with entry-level secretaries for decades. His abuses loom over the play like a shroud.
Unlike the movie 9 to 5, which skewers a Solomon-like boss, in Annie Weisman's Hold Please he remains in charge -- la plus ça change? She concentrates, instead, on the wars of the cubicles: the secretaries, and their new boss, form fragile alliances, backstab and connive. Like Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman, which looks at racism among African-Americans, Hold Please dares to raise questions about "sisterhood" in the contemporary workplace.
Were Grace and Agatha to see the play, they'd decry it as feminist backlash, or even what Thomas Pynchon in Against the Day calls "gynecophobia" (fear of women), since Weisman paints a negative portrait of pink-collar politics. If Jessica and Erika saw Hold Please, though they're depicted as shallow and self-centered and buffeted by forces they think they control, they'd probably say "what-ever," shake it off, and go on about their lives, convinced they're "on their way up and out."
Hold Please could use a stronger engine, and the emotional arcs tend to zigzag (in trying not to tie a cozy knot, the conclusion verges on the gender stereotypes it's been trying to avoid). But it's got Weisman's genuine gifts for snappy dialogue, precise, revealing details, and rafter-rattling humor, as when a character observes, "They came at you from all sides, like Pep Boys on a vintage Mustang."
Also, amid the subsurface strife, Weisman's women entertain and disturb. They may not be likable, but it's easy to worry about them. Stephanie Beatriz plays Erika as confident and spicy, even though her "choices" make you wonder how deluded a person can be. Starla Benford's Grace seems at peace but isn't -- especially during confessional smoke break. Another Weisman touch: Grace is the most likable of the four, so the playwright has her say, "They go on and on about global warming, but if it means sugar snap peas come sooner, how bad can it be?"
Kandis Chappell gives disillusioned Agatha touches that humanize what could be a grotesque caricature. So does the playwright, who has Agatha watching the "Surgery Channel marathon" (here and elsewhere, Mary Larson's costumes -- Agatha in all gray business, Erika in nightclub-ready reds -- define character to a T).
Weisman's most devastating portrait is Jessica. Mercurial, intellectually flighty, she has what you could call "Google-consciousness." She knows snippets about stray subjects, culled from Wikipedia blurbs, but assumes she sees all clearly. Like many in her generation, Jessica questions very little. She assumes that knowledge is portable and that the net has all the answers. Kate Arrington, who gets every inch of the woman for whom even a black eye's a good thing, hammers one line hard. Asked if something she said were true, Jessica gives the questioner a "duhh" look and replies, "I got it online."
On opening night, the pace often lagged, especially between scenes. On the plus side, the play could be done as a realistic piece. Instead, director Kirsten Brandt and lighting designer David Lee Cuthbert drape it with an expressionist-absurdist aura. Phones don't ring; lights flash around the stage rim. And the various machines verge on being vocal. All suggest that, were it not for the voracious sexism of the CEO, the time may come when even one secretary at Solomon, Greenspan, Sachs will be "redundant.
Hold Please by Annie Weisman
Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park
Directed by Kirsten Brandt: cast: Stephanie Beatriz, Kandis Chappell, Kate Arrington, Starla Benford; scenic design, Michael Vaughn Sims; costumes, Mary Larson; lighting, David Lee Cuthbert; sound, Paul Peterson
Playing through May 6; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. 619-234-5623