Tickled Inc.

Actors Theatre of Phoenix's claim that its new play is "the biggest downtown Phoenix event preceding the opening of Bank One Ballpark" seems like something of an overstatement. Still, I'm hard-pressed to think of anything happening downtown that's more stimulating than Below the Belt, Richard Dresser's demented comedy about big business and the horrors of middle management.

The concept is old news: Several films, plays and musicals have successfully spoofed or at least jabbed at corporate America and the working class, most memorably Studs Terkel's Working and Frank Loesser's recently revived How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. But Dresser's take on big business is funnier and less sentimental than those better-known works. His angle is that we're not victims of an evil, corporate-based society, but rather our own shortsightedness and greed. The trio of middle-management employees he draws (whose names--Dobbitt, Hanrahan and Merkin--sound suspiciously like parts of a large, sinister machine) is shrewd and conniving but ultimately stupid and easily fooled.

The play's structure is unique: The story, such as it is, doesn't show up until the second act, when boss man Merkin confides in Dobbitt that Hanrahan's wife has written to say she's left him to join a convent. Delivering the letter to Hanrahan would impair his output, so Merkin assigns Dobbitt the job of writing a phony, reassuring love letter to Hanrahan from his wife. This tidy deceit shifts the play from comedy to commentary, and we go from watching a bunch of wacky workers clawing their way to the top to the grand huzzah that the cogs in this corporate machine really are the hateful, power-hungry horrors we feared. Despite this shift, Dresser neither strays from absurdist comedy nor goes mushy on us with a message about how these guys are human beings. In fact, most of the funnier bits come in the second act--there's a hilarious sequence spoofing awful office parties, and a violently funny duel fought with a chair and a straight razor.

All of this is preceded by a first act that sets up the creepy, Kafkaesque characters. These guys are trapped in a scary salt mine, left to suck corporate thumbs and tackle one another for cheap bonuses and a vague sense of job security. We don't know much about these men; we're told that Hanrahan's former workmate killed himself by drinking glue and that Merkin's wife died in childbirth but was later revived because she "wasn't dead for very long." In fact, we're never told what exactly these guys do for a living, only that they're "checkers," though we don't know what they're checking.

The cast is impeccable: As Hanrahan, Jon Gentry is terrifically funny, especially when he's assaulting his guileless employer or biting off one of Dresser's arch speeches about the joys of "the company." Jim Coates makes Dobbitt into a marvelous milquetoast, braying all his lines in an appropriately annoying nasal twang. Upstaging the venerable Benjamin Stewart, who plays Merkin, is tough work, but both Gentry and Coates manage.

Director Matthew Wiener has pulled the production off the stage and out into the audience: Before curtain and at intermission, a loudspeaker blares inane, annoying bulletins that begin, "Attention, all workers . . . ," while prepubescent ushers shine flashlights at Jeff Thomson's wonderfully stark, harshly lighted industrial set of mortar and chain link.

As producing artistic director of Actors Theatre, Wiener has taken a real risk by selecting this quirky, little-known play. Artistically, at least, the risk has paid off: While this absurd spectacle may not be as big as a ballpark, it's certainly worth a chunk of your hard-earned paycheck.

Actors Theatre of Phoenix's production of Below the Belt continues through Sunday, March 22, in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.