Thrown into Outer Darkness

Richard Dresser’s Below the Belt is set in an unnamed location and inside a factory that manufactures an unknown product; but unlike, say, the “little nameless object” assembled by the Newsome family in Henry James’ The Ambassadors, Mr. Dresser’s company has mostly insidious overtones.  Globalization and colonialism are in the air, even if they are never mentioned.  Perhaps the military-industrial complex is involved.  But without a doubt, there are creatures that have broken into the compound, creatures that have gone unacknowledged by those on top, who bury any human or safety considerations under an avalanche of red tape and corporate jargon.  Zeroing in on a three-person cast, Below the Belt follows the “checkers” working for the company: Merkin (Cecelia Frontero), the petty boss who’s looking to move to Spain or at least find some sycophantic employees, Hanrahan (Andrew Van Dusen), a middle manager who defends his tiny pleasures like Cerberus guarding the underworld, and Dobbitt (Monroe Robertson), a new recruit who is only looking to ingratiate himself with the others.

The script recalls the major figures of Theatre of the Absurd, in particular Harold Pinter and his short work “Precisely,” in which two men argue over the number of a figure, only to reveal at the end they are speaking about dead bodies; as with Pinter, there is certainly a sense that Mr. Dresser is attempting to tackle the dehumanizing effect of international corporate culture, but his deliberate vagueness prevents the play from any unwanted, high-pitched preachiness.  Staged in an old boiler room that used to serve as an AT&T/Bell laboratory, the voices of the actors echo slightly, their words boomeranging back to them in all their hollowness.  Mr. Van Dusen is the strongest performer here, whose Hanrahan is weary, cagey, aggressive, and vulnerable; he and Mr. Robertson form a nice, budding friendship, offering Below the Belt‘s only warmth.  Unfortunately, Ms. Frontero has not yet mastered her part, and reads her lines like an actor who has only just memorized them—she never really gives us enough from Merkin, whose failure to bully her staff into liking her has great comic (and tragic) potential.

Still, this is a mostly strong rendering of an interesting work, one that realizes a world described before World War II by Franz Kafka and after by Samuel Beckett.  If it occasionally feels slight, there is something nonetheless charming about its audacity in following these masters.

Below the Belt runs through May 17th at the Westbeth Center for the Arts.  55 Bethune Street  New York, NY.  1 hour 45 minutes.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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