Sunday, May 5, 2013

'Bull': Workplace Politics as Blood Sport

The combatants gather in Mike Bartlett's 'Bull'

It stands to reason that, having written a highly successful play called Cock, the playwright Mike Bartlett could not resist calling his next one Bull.  Since the running time for the former is 90 minutes, and for the latter it is 50 minutes, you know it won’t be long before they will be paired up for a theatrical evening under the title 'Cock and Bull.'

That particularly bit of marketing silliness aside, the two plays are good companion pieces, with a shared depiction of human competitiveness as blood sport. 

Cock depicted a sexual triangle (a man and woman fighting over another man).  Bull, on view at the 59 East 59 Theater, moves the battleground to the workplace, though with the same combat-to-the-death theme.  

With Bull, we get a ringside view of three employees of an unnamed corporate entity who are at the endgame of vying over the two positions that will remain after a round of downsizing. Call it musical chairs with real consequences.

It is clear from the get-go who will be discharged, as two of the players have joined forces like members of a wolf pack closing in on a wounded zebra.  Anyone who has ever worked in a hostile work environment (and let’s face it, who hasn’t) will recognize the antagonists: Tony, the self-confident arrogant bastard, and Isobel, the vicious piece of business determined to claw her way to the top regardless of collateral damage. Poor Thomas, the intended prey, doesn’t stand a chance against these armed-to-the-teeth backstabbers. 

The play takes place in a waiting area shortly before a meeting with the boss.  Almost from the outset, Tony and Isobel start in on Thomas, denigrating his appearance, alternately withholding information and lying altogether, and thrusting their verbal lances like picadors in (naturally) a bullfight.  “Stop shuffling around like an autistic penguin,” Isobel tells him, while criticizing his suit and pointing out a non-existent blotch in the corner of his mouth.  They behave, in short, like a pair of nasty-ass middle school bullies. 

This really is all there is to the play. Tony and Isobel keep up their thrusts and jabs until the boss shows up and Thomas—knowing he doesn’t stand a chance—lashes out uncontrollably (for which you might feel the urge to send up a mighty cheer), though, of course, he ends up the perfect and inevitable victim. 

What makes this well worth the visit is the exquisite performances by Adam James as Tony, Eleanor Matsuura as Isobel, Neil Stuke as the boss, and, especially, Sam Troughton as Thomas, who starts out without much self-confidence and gradually melts into a twitching and trembling mass of gelatin under the cruel ministrations of his “colleagues.”  It comes almost as a surprise that Mr. Troughton is able to stand up to take his bow.  Director Clare Lizzimore has done a fine job of keeping the level of tension high.  Clever idea to pump up the audience by using the well-known theme music from the movie Rocky III as a lead-in.  

If you go, be sure to ask for a “standing room” ticket.  That will give you a place around the square of Plexiglass set up like a boxing ring and give you the closest and best view of the goings-on.  You will not be able to tear your eyes away.  Plan on dinner or drinks afterwards; the evening will still be young and you will have much to talk about.  

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