Before you ask, no, the characters in this play do not live in the storied French capital. But ask any of them where its protagonist, Emmie, is from and they might guess she does. Despite Emmie’s being born and raised in the small, mostly white Vermont town where the play is set, her new coworkers (also locals) say they’ve never seen her before. Would she have wanted them to?
In Paris, actor/writer Eboni Booth’s playwriting debut, visibility and invisibility are existential terrors of equal measure. Located firmly in the Bezos era of warehouse workers unable to take bathroom breaks lest the chain of productivity collapse, the play follows a would-be college graduate as she attempts to keep her head down and earn a living, while remaining visible enough to collect the paycheck. Recently hired at a corporate superstore with a comically sinister training video (heavy echoes of the 2018 film Sorry to Bother You), Emmie (Jules Latimer) is almost a blank slate of reliable efficiency. She doesn’t share much about herself, which may be why her all-white coworkers claim never to have noticed her around town.
Box after box, label after label, she’s kept in the backroom because corporate can’t have someone with visible bruises working sales. Is she telling the truth about the fall that caused them? Her answers, even the ones confirming her coworkers’ suspicions, seem to keep changing , and none of them asks beyond a passing inquiry, and the work goes on. They have their own issues to deal with.
In contrast to her quiet demeanor, the rest of the Berry’s staff is a motley crew of Mamet-like hungry misfits. There’s Gar (Eddie K. Robinson), their silently erupting supervisor; Maxine (a sharp-tongued Danielle Skraastad), a constantly erupting volcano and mother of four; Logan (Christopher Dylan White), whose youth, rebellious attitude, and connections to corporate make his qualifications doubtful; Wendy (a charming, lived-in Ann McDonough), a flask-sneaking longtime employee; and Dev (James Murtaugh), Wendy’s traffic-cop husband who occasionally drops in to peddle self-help books.
Also lurking around David Zinn’s claustrophobic set–a break room built into the wall and an audience-level stockroom floor–is Carlisle (a quietly menacing Bruce McKenzie), who doesn’t work at Berry’s but stalks the store like a hunter looking to collect a mysterious bounty. His appearance about halfway through the one-act play charges it with the danger and purpose it had otherwise begun to lack.
Until his appearance, Paris wanders through the days leading up to Christmas and New Year’s Eve, as tensions between the employees mount and dissolve at an idle pace. The deeply felt misery of 9-to-5s in late-stage capitalism is the enemy, Booth makes clear pretty early on, and the play is insightful, if not incisive, in its observations of the dehumanizing nature of all-work-and-no-play. Only Wendy’s (forced?) carefree nature and Maxine’s exasperation at her constant undercompensation punctuate the air of stagnation.
The piece’s emotional impact–and it does have one–isn’t fully felt until the final scene, a delayed gratification that’s helped by the lack of an intermission. Director Knud Adams casts a flat affect over the employees’ daily lives: a win for social realism, but one that doesn’t help the script’s lack of dynamism. The performances are engaging and the episodic plot is interesting enough, but the mind has a tendency to wander and wonder where it’s all headed when presented with vignettes that aren’t so much variations on a theme, but repetitions of an idea.
They do add up, however, much like the blame that gets passed around or buried between employees. Only once you’ve relaxed into passively watching Logan promise Emmie information in exchange for attending his rap show, or Carlisle broker shady deals among the crew, do you feel suffocatingly trapped in an impossible rat race. Rooting too hard for one character means you must root less for another, though their issues are complicated and diverse. At this rung of the corporate ladder, even faint glimmers of hope seem to come at the expense of others, and the more everything changes, the more it remains the same.