There is no question that the team behind Preparedness has done their time in the minefields of academia. From the perplexing preponderance of acronyms to the pitched battles for funding to the fierce territoriality over items in the break room mini-fridge to the poisonous internal animosities papered over by a surface of congeniality to the drab basement conference room filled with semifunctional technology, playwright Hillary Miller and the design team (especially set designer Carolyn Mraz and props designer Patricia Marjorie) paint the world of a small theater department at a cash-strapped public university with rich, sometimes excruciatingly rich, detail. (The landline that only receives incoming calls in a basement without cell reception. The protectiveness over one’s “good Tupperware.” The drab linoleum. The mismatched chairs. The particular shade of peach/beige in the bathroom tile. I don’t know which of them gets credit for the poster bearing the slogan GOHOHOF–”get out, hide out, help out, fight”; the steps to take in an active shooter situation–with target crosshairs on all the Os, but it’s little touches like that that so clearly define this world.)
But Miller, director Kristjan Thor, and the excellent cast are now trying to capture not just the world of theater academia, or the tension between an idealized ivory tower and the more nebulous actual space where professors are expected not only to teach but to protect their students from active shooters, provide mental health support, help the university fundraise, and be grateful they have a job. On top of that, they’re tackling academia at this very particular wishfully-but-not-actually-post-pandemic moment: the first real faculty meeting in-person after shutdowns and remote learning, a world of intermittent masking, ongoing anxiety, and a state of mind where everything is both uncomfortably familiar and uncomfortably different. (The show was originally developed for the 2019-20 Bushwick Starr season, and its translation to this moment only raises the stakes. The milieu reminds me of the recent Netflix series The Chair, which dealt with some of the same material but opted not to engage with the pandemic in any meaningful way.) And on top of that, it’s a comedy about workplace violence and self-defense training.
It’s the first in-person staff meeting of the theater faculty, and they’ve put off a state-mandated ASPR training–no one bothered to include the acronym’s translation on the meeting invite, but it’s Active Shooter Preparedness Response–to the point where their department budget, paychecks included, is about to be held hostage by their noncompliance. But hey, at least they’ve got Cat Blanchett the robocat (I confess I did not get the pun until I saw the name written down), provided as a “resilience mascot” by a university pilot program, according to the department chair. (Sound designer Chris Darbassie does some very funny things with Cat Blanchett.)
Enter Kath (Alison Cimmet), an officiously chirpy HR functionary with “certifications in professional coaching, employee relations, and, as of last week, disaster preparedness communications.” Jeff (Lou Liberatore), the chair, who’s emboldened by the fact that he’s independently wealthy and doesn’t really care if his paychecks clear, and Carol (KK Moggie), the pragmatist who’ll do what’s asked of her because she doesn’t see a lot of alternatives for a middle-aged woman of color who’s just trying to hold on to the job she already has, just want to get through the training and get on with their lives. Laurette (Nora Cole), classically trained actor with perfect diction, and Haydée (pronounced Hei-day, not Hy-dee, please) (Tracy Hazas), the newest member of the department, are appalled by the whole exercise. And Alex (Luis Moreno), the tech guy, the certified wise-ass in the room, reflexively rejects anything that smacks of bureaucracy, but as the training gets more immersive, he starts to see it as an exercise of their craft–and one that might just save them all.
Miller’s script gives character breakdowns that are themselves exercises in understanding academia, albeit tipped a little in the direction of satiric archetype rather than complicated human being. (Entirely reasonable under the circumstances; the play takes place in real time and these people aren’t actually that close.) And the cast, under Thor’s direction, collectively nails the rueful dark humor. (Special kudos to Cimmet, who gives Kath a manic and gawky energy covering a steely and ambitious core, and Cole, who emotes like a master and gives the play’s final grace note in a monologue where she gives acting notes to a class of students performing Electra.)
While Thor does excellent work with the actors, I wasn’t fully convinced by the staging choices–a big chunk of time in the middle is devoted to arranging (and then unarranging) set pieces right in front of the audience to allow for a single sequence of action; it stops the play in its tracks both before and after the climactic sequence, which itself would feel a lot more surprising if its significance weren’t telegraphed by the scene change. The pacing never quite recovers from the second scene change, and the last third of the play feels disjointed and more emotionally rote than what precedes it, which is swift, funny, and often incisive.
Miller, Thor, and the gifted cast may not be breaking particularly new ground here, but the humor hits its mark, and captures our moment.