by MICHAEL VAN DUZER
[dropcap]Erik[/dropcap] Patterson’s plays have been called dark, provocative, edgy, and disturbing. Though, typically not in the same sentence. All of these adjectives remain apt in describing his new play, One of the Nice Ones, which is having its world premiere at the Echo Theater Company.
Directed by Chris Fields, One of the Nice Ones opens with Roger (Graham Hamilton) conducting a performance review for Tracy (Rebecca Gray). Tracy, who uses a wheelchair, is a salesperson at Tender Form Weight Loss Systems and her numbers are down. To say that Tracy is desperate to keep her job is a gross understatement. Their fiery confrontation quickly reveals that both are master manipulators and that neither Tracy nor Roger have more than a passing acquaintance with the titular “nice ones.”
The office setting, the casual misogyny, the brisk scatological repartee and the smell of treachery in the air may conjure echoes of Mamet and LaBute. But Patterson’s writing brings a uniquely savage humor and an unblinking insight to his characters and their humanity. Or lack thereof.
The award-winning Patterson is quite clear about the world he’s created and how it relates to the play’s themes. “One of the things I’m exploring,” he explains, “is what we do to our bodies in order to feel complete, so it felt appropriate to set the play at a company that sells diet products. And I thought it would be interesting if all the characters were in sales. They’re all selling each other throughout the course of the play.”
Sales are important, but it appears that the barter system is also operational at the Tender Forms office. Tracy has no compunction about offering sexual favors to keep her job and, in a disastrous moment of weakness, Roger succumbs. He is immediately swept up into a dangerous dance which he soon discovers places him in the role of follower, not leader.
As ruthless as she is in protecting her job at any cost, there is something Tracy is even more determined to achieve. She harbors a bizarre secret, and an equally disconcerting ambition, that drives her forward relentlessly in a quest to actualize her vision of herself. (No spoilers here, but it concerns body image.)
When I mention words like “narcissistic” and “amoral,” to describe Tracy, Gray is quick to admonish me for my choice of descriptive adjectives. And I understand her concern. Actors work hard to develop a deep and sympathetic understanding of their character’s passions and deeds, no matter how outrageous. My words are external judgments and can only seem hurtful to a performer committed to playing Tracy honestly.
“Tracy believes herself to be a victim at the mercy of other people’s opinions, ideas, and ways of living,” Gray explains. “She is always on the defensive, because everyone around her insists that the right way to be is not the way she knows she needs to be.”
Gray is also quick to point out that Tracy has a moral compass, even if the manner in which she reveals it is questionable. As in the scene when she stumbles upon an uncomfortably frank sexual conversation between Roger and salesperson, Neal (Rodney To), in the break room. “She interrupts a standard “Bro Culture” convo between her male coworkers and calls out what they’re talking about as rape. Her logic is tight. Her motivations for calling out her coworkers, however, are not — that’s where Tracy kind of falls apart as a hero, and P.S., that’s exactly how she thinks of herself, as a hero!”
As powerful and frightening as Tracy is, Roger is fairly well-matched as an adversary in cunning and cold-blooded calculation. Until Tracy is galvanized by the threat of losing her job, Roger comfortably rules the office. He is privileged and confident with an openly sadistic streak in him. (Hamilton has no problem with my use of “narcissistic” in describing Roger.) His need to dominate is clearly revealed in a hilarious, if cringe-inducing, encounter with Neal at the office urinals.
“Roger gets away with saying and doing horrible things because he’s a good salesman,” Patterson offers. “He knows how to convince you he’s in the right. That’s interesting to me. How does a good salesman like Roger handle the request Tracy makes at the end of the second scene? She’s asking him to sell the idea of what she wants to change about her body, and it’s really an impossible request.”
The action of One of the Nice Ones is insular — taking place entirely within the Tender Forms offices. But there are important thematic connections with the outside world and Patterson is eager to underline them. “As a society, we’re losing the ability to empathize. I think it’s because of a combination of the anonymity of the internet (we can say bad things without repercussions, what a rush!) and the Trumpification of politics (he can say bad things without repercussions, what a rush!) and it scares me. Without empathy, we become mean, cold, hard. That’s where the characters in this play begin.”
Not surprisingly, Gray’s views spring from her relationship with Tracy, but they expand easily to a big picture view. “Until, as a species we begin to understand and embrace that the monster has a human face… until we accept that we are all susceptible to doing grave harm to other sentient beings in the name of “what is right,” these things will keep happening. The monster is not Tracy, the monster is me.”
Tracy and Roger make bad choices, which inevitably lead to appalling behavior. But, guided by Patterson’s empathy and gimlet-eyed view of humanity, an audience will understand, and even vicariously enjoy watching his characters act out.
NOW PLAYING: ONE OF THE NICE ONES by Echo Theater Company, through August 21.
As the most recent hire at Tender Form Weight Loss Systems, wheelchair-bound Tracy will stop at nothing to avoid being laid off by high-handed boss Roger. Perhaps it’s her disability that makes her so keenly aware that noone gets ahead by being “one of the nice ones.” Soon, hapless co-worker Neal and weight loss client Colleen find themselves caught in the lethal crossfire of a workplace battle zone.