Set in a recession-plagued New York, Steven Levenson’s Core Values invites us to observe the slow death of a travel agency through the unravelling relationship between the business’s owner and his three employees during a weekend work retreat.
Agency owner Richard (Reed Birney) is entering his own personal winter of discontent trying to work out how to adapt not only to a changing market place but to a new life after having split from his wife, who got the kids and a new boyfriend. Lacking loyalty, commitment, honesty, and fun in his personal life, he misguidedly thinks he can fix these values at a team-building retreat held in the office’s boardroom. Unfortunately, his team — barring the new girl wanting to make a good impression — see this as a chore rather than an enriching experience.
Since The Office began airing, there has been a fascination with observational pieces set in the workplace, primarily because most of us can relate to (while gleefully cringing at) depictions of office personas and politics that are similar to our own work experiences. Here it’s no different. There is the organized top performer, Nancy (Susan Kelechi Watson), who is permanently glued to her smart phone, only coming up for air to deride the workshop or a team member, thereby reinforcing her position. There is the socially awkward one, Todd (Paul Thureen), who seems creepy but only because the stability and appreciation he craves is not afforded him by either his work or his manipulative West-Coast girlfriend, who insists they have an open relationship. Finally, there’s the shy eager beaver, Eliot (Erin Wilhelmi), both aggressively shy and sunny, who simply needs a job but has been consistently told she doesn’t have experience (even to work in Bed, Bath and Beyond). She is a reminder of how hard it is to get started in the workforce and of how keen we once were before the shiny idea of working for a living dulled.
Richard leads his lackadaisical (minus Eliot) team through a series of team-building exercises and client roleplays over the course of two days, which will culminate in him treating them to an end-of-retreat surprise night out. Naturally, the retreat is not designed to build a high-performing team but to enable Richard to remind himself of his skills and strengths in his newly unsteady life, and to minimize his loneliness. He is a consummate salesman; he can still coach a willing student (Eliot) in how to succeed in the travel business, and if his kids don’t want to spend time with him he can take out his paternal instincts on his employees. What he doesn’t realize is that the connection to others he so craves occurs not in a structured setting where people are required to bond but organically and through vulnerable and more intimate exchanges. Yet he is so blinded by his desire to connect that he misfires whenever these opportunities present themselves. He sees himself as Todd’s friend, whereas Todd sees Richard as his boss. The realization of this obvious conclusion is not only heartbreaking but leaves Richard open to manipulation when negotiating Todd’s stay.
When Nancy offers him her comfort and support in the spirit of true friendship, he abuses this kindness and kisses her for a momentary feeling of intimacy and confidence. It’s disheartening because it’s a cry for help signaling that romance is another area of his new life that terrifies him and which he has no idea how to navigate. There is a sense that Nancy is so horrified by this act because she liked it, the act perhaps taking her out of her state of avoidance and making her face her betrayal of Richard (she swears to him she is not leaving like Todd, then later reveals that she has already accepted a job with Expedia), and because of her dissatisfaction in her tenuous marriage with her selfish “golf-playing” husband. The next day, when Nancy delicately tries to discuss what happened between her and Richard, Richard avoids her. It’s a powerful scene between Birney and Watson, one of those short scenes that is made breathtakingly brilliant thanks to the sheer quality of the acting.
In each scene the characters’ true values are revealed: Richard is a good guy at the end of the day, he simply no longer understands how to operate with the fast changing pace of today’s world and his own life. Nancy can’t admit the truth of herself or marriage and so dedicates herself to survival and success at work. Todd, in search for validation through success, starts manipulating others just as he is manipulated by his girlfriend. Although each of them are at different stages of their lives, they are all at the same point and faced with the same question of how their lives turn out this way. Perhaps the only person who truly lives according to her values is the naive Eliot who, despite a few setbacks, remains hopeful and, in training, is honest about the fact that she has no idea what she is doing.
Richard and Eliot’s scene at the end is a nice juxtaposition of the old and the new. She is a mirror to him in many ways, and when he says to her, “My dad made cars. We don’t make anything any more, do we?” she replies, “We make sales.” It’s a rather lovely way of depicting their generational differences in thought and attitudes toward the world, and the emergence of the new guard. Ultimately, what can Richard do other than adapt or die?
Ars Nova is committed to developing artists in the early stages of their career (claiming Bekah Brunstetter among others as part of their cultivation stable) and they have scored again with Levenson. Clearly, Levenson can write. His deft ability to write both comedy and drama so successfully and tightly is striking. He creates characters with strong back stories (of which he only gives you a glimpse), but in a way that makes you feel you have a complete picture of who they are. Without this they could have descended into the land of caricature. Some of the scenes are there for pure comedic value (the trust fall exercise) and some exchanges might have benefitted from slight trimming, but he knows what he is doing and gives the audience exactly enough of what they need to incite the right amount of amusement and pity.
Carolyn Cantor’s wonderful direction seems effortless, as she is able to call forth the exact amount of weight from her charges. It allows us to connect with each character’s human story and sadness and avoids becoming annoyingly two-dimensional. Lauren Helpern’s stage design, where the set is in the middle of the theater with audience members on either side, perfectly complements the idea that we are flies on the wall observing a slice of these people’s lives. Lastly, not much can be said about the acting other than it was simply stunning. Each actor had to display a rounded character with only a few inferences here and there informing us of their personal situations. They conveyed their complicated and troubled subtexts with considerable skill. What’s more the chemistry between the four of them and between each pair was remarkably present.