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‘Proletariat’ very good but too much like Mamet

I have a major reservation about Las Vegas Little Theatre’s very entertaining “The Proletariat,” but there’s much good stuff to talk about first.

Ernest Hemmings’ original play about the evils of the corporate world is at times devastatingly funny, cleanly written and rich in surprises. Simple premise: A ruthless, devious sales boss and his seemingly easygoing assistant are having a meeting with a staff member. They are apparently about to fire her for not meeting quotas, frequent absences and a nasty attitude (translation: she doesn’t like them). But it winds up she’s become just as skilled as they in big-business doublespeak. Termination won’t be the piece of cake they thought.

The moment-by-moment verbal combat keeps you riveted. When the two biggies carefully leave their staffer waiting in the hallway at her appointed meeting time, she one-ups them by leaving. They are made humble in having to go and ask her back. It’s a quick bit of business that shows Hemmings’ visceral connection to this world.

Another moment has the pompous boss talking about the importance of “trust.” As if he feels the staffer is too ignorant to get it on her own, he slowly prints the word in capital letters on a board. Is there anyone in white-collar America who hasn’t lived through that? Hemmings understands the subtle devices people use to keep others in their place. Three folks sitting around a desk in a small office on a tiny stage may not be one’s idea of dramatic fireworks, but the author’s words give that desk all the spark it needs.

Hemmings direction is equally adept. He helps two actors deliver knockout performances. As Harold, a supervisor who carefully and nervously tires to play both sides of the fence, Ryan Balint is a marvel of effortless contradictions. He looks like a top-tier professional man and has an innocent but masculine face and smile (what pearly whites!) that make you want to believe his every word. When we see his ruthless side, you feel maybe he’s not to blame. Is it his fault that the disease of capitalism has snatched and invaded his gentle soul?

Cathy Ostertag allows us to understand the complicated motives of the “lowly” staffer. She communicates fear and uncertainty mixed with a righteous determination to stand up for what she thinks is right. The multifaceted actress makes you suspect her character’s aggressiveness is newly (and not easily) acquired.

Joel Wayman has a tough go in the role of the boss, John. The actor doesn’t get under the skin of his character and fakes all of the man’s eccentricities.

And the serious ending goes against the script’s tone. The serious problem, though, is that the plot and style of language brings to mind too many memories of David Mamet. The story feels lifted from “Glengarry Glenn Ross” with a touch of “Oleanna.” Hemmings has developed a strong, exciting voice as a playwright. But in “The Proletariat” the voice is not his.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at
vegastheaterchat@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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