Victor L. Cahn has written a book on gender and power in the plays of Harold Pinter, and his new play, Getting the Business, feels like a riff on the issues raised in his predecessor’s work. Billed somewhat misleadingly as a “noir farce”—probably because it features a femme fatale—it is more like a black comedy in the tradition of The Homecoming and Dangerous Liaisons; John Lahr recently described the former as proving that “words were [not] just vessels of meaning … [but] weapons of defense,” and indeed, in Getting the Business, the dialogue is rarely more than superficial noise that lightly clothes more sinister intentions.
Bert (Mr. Cahn), a slimy, corrupt executive, hires a woman without a résumé to fill the often vacated position of his secretary. Leering at her from across his desk, he assumes he will be able to exploit the boys’ club and the glass ceiling to undress and then dispose of her. But Patricia (Susan Louise O’Connor) is more Barbara Stanwyck than Audrey Hepburn—like something out of a misogynistic nightmare, she will squint, scrunch her nose and smile as she sticks her shiv in your back. “Patty” quickly accelerates from “secretary” to “assistant” to “associate,” and even begins to threaten Bert’s position at the company. While whispering in the ears of his superiors, she quietly takes over his office, decorating it with flowers and throw pillows, seemingly innocuous items that are in fact declarations of war. In one scene, she argues for a different approach to marketing lingerie, dangling a high heel from her toe: “I know what you’re thinking. When is the shoe going to fall? Is it ever going to fall? That is what you’re thinking, right?” He purrs, “Yes,” but in fact, he is nowhere near prepared when the other shoe drops.
Admittedly, there is not much that is new about Getting the Business. What might be an examination of, say, gender and power, is really nothing more than eighty minutes of verbal knife play. And neither Mr. Cahn nor Ms. O’Connor have the precision that is needed for dialogue like this. Each line should be spoken trippingly and sound like the sharpening of a blade, but they too often seem to rely on the language alone, making the obvious interpretive choices, rarely relishing and owning it like great actors would. Still, the writing is fairly solid, dripping with a nice consistency of innuendos and double-entrendres. Pinter is dead and we’ll never have another one of his plays again—so I’ll take Pinter Light any time I can get it.