Chicago Theater Review: THE FUNDAMENTALS (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 20, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

“RESOURCEFUL, GRACEFUL”—AND RUTHLESS

Corporate corruption—it’s not just an oxymoron. We associate it with crimes in the suites–but there’s also a trickle-down contamination: Compromises slowly curdle into white collar, then blue collar, crimes—or at least betrayals—of trust, solidarity, and integrity. A cunningly specific Steppenwolf Theatre world premiere, The Fundamentals is steeped in its subject and setting. In 130 minutes playwright Erika Sheffer, author of Russian Transport, turns The Bakerville, a high-end boutique hotel in midtown Manhattan, into a cesspool of a snakepit. This could easily be a Trump hotel.

alan-wilder-abe-in-steppenwolfs-production-of-the-fundamentalsIs this plutocratic playground, a dream destination, really a microcosm of America? Behind-the-scenes (where we lurk for two acts), does merit matter as much as manipulations and machinations? Do we enjoy or endure–depending on if we’re guest or staff–workplaces where it profits to be “selfish and mean”? Never did the bitter adage “No good deed goes unpunished” prove so true.

Painstaking and relentless, director Yasen Peyankov prosecutes the play like a determined D.A. Framing the action are hilariously overwrought motivation videos by Stephan Mazurek. Created to indoctrinate employees of the hotel chain, they explode with phony enthusiasm over the questionable joys of making rich folks comfortable and anticipating their narcissistic needs. This vibrant propaganda is a stark contrast with set designer Collette Pollard’s doggedly dull downstairs quarters for the “help.”

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Edifying and cautionary, Steppenwolf’s justly cynical, scathingly detailed, expose centers on Millie Diaz (a fascinatingly opaque Alana Arenas). A dropout from a full college scholarship, this mother of a 10-year-old named Cleo actually looks forward to serving as a housekeeper and liaison to the front desk. Operating from a downstairs desk (perhaps because she’s the wrong race for management), Millie is schooling Stellan (Caroline Neff), a new white maid and wanna-be actress. Stellan comes complete with fantasies of entitlement to feed her ambition and maddening assumptions of impunity to protect her actions.

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Representing the old-school notion of “getting on by going along”, 60-year-old floor manager Abe (Alan Wilder) is enjoying 30 years of comfortable anonymity in a corner with his beloved lamp. In contrast, coldly and efficiently embodying upstairs middle management, supervisor Eliza (Audrey Francis) manages the budget, keeps tracks of supplies, and, most crucially, enforces ethical standards and other “fundamentals”: Disliking people in general, she’s found the perfect place for her indifference, ironically in the “heart” of the service industry.

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Finally, there’s Lorenzo (Armando Riesco), Millie’s 36-year-old husband. A Bakerville engineer/maintenance man, he’s also a chronic gambler, borrower, scammer and thief, as well as eccentric dreamer (much like Walter Jr. in Raisin in the Sun): He plans to make a fortune by marketing $1000 luxury toothpicks to the 1%. He also fares poorly in the hotel’s role-playing seminars, unintentionally hilarious exercises that touchy Lorenzo imagines are racist and humiliating. Clumsily loving Milly, Lorenzo believes that she and Cleo deserve better (even if he doesn’t). He can’t fathom her devotion to what seems a dead end: “Some people get the dream and some people get the family.” In turn Milly is tired of always having to forgive Lorenzo, thus enabling his next venal opportunity.

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Once Sheffer assembles five very different employees, The Fundamentals tests the limits of their loyalty, specifically what Millie will sacrifice for her family’s future. This luxurious escape, it seems, hides a lot of literally undercover activities, like pimps and prostitutes providing a very different room service. We also learn about “room stealing” (unauthorized use of accommodations), stealing from guests, cheating on overtime, and skimming or larceny of stocks and supplies.

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Winked at, these transgressions fester as temptations for future blackmail, snitching, and other dirty tricks. To what, Sheffer vividly wonders, will these Bakerville denizens stoop to get ahead? Sadly, they’re stuck in a world where it’s not enough to succeed: Your colleagues must fail. When the cards are stacked against you, playing by the rules seems a sucker’s game.

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Steppenwolf bills the play as “funny” as well as “scathing.” But it’s no laugh riot. The ugly side perversely prevails, especially in the sardonic, soul-shrinking ending. Surprisingly unjudgmental despite some dark doings, The Fundamentals blames the skullduggery on survival struggles rather than endemic evil. (To its credit, it also refuses to fall into the trap of blaming bad behavior on domestic abuse and vice versa.)

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The harrowing results remain nasty stuff. The audience squirms as much as the characters strategize. With superb support from laser-targeted fellow-workers, Alana Arenas makes Millie’s loss of innocence a crying shame. Steppenwolf’s object lesson in the merits of mendacity accuses us all.

alan-wilder-abe-and-alana-arenas-millie-in-steppenwolfs-production-of-the-fundamentalsphotos by Michael Brosilow

The Fundamentals
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St
ends on December 23, 2016
EXTENDED through December 31, 2016
for tickets, call 312.335.1650 or visit Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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