One of Mad Men‘s many successes, aside from giving its female characters dimension in arenas besides cup size, was to make the advertising business sexy. Before Don Draper and Co. turned the ego-driven madness of Madison Avenue into something provocative and edgy, the ad world was about as heart rate-increasing as a career in insurance adjustment. Pitch Perfect, which runs through August 18 at Central Works, tries for a similar effect, even invoking Draper’s name in the synopsis: “Imagine Don Draper decided to write his Mad Men insider memoirs as a comedy,” it begins. Pitch Perfect, however, is not a comedy. In fact, there was nary a chuckle, let alone any full-on LOL-worthy moments, during the eighty-minute play. Dick van Dyke handjob jokes and fruit puns aside, the play is miscast as a comedy. It’s a revenge narrative, and an empty one at that.
Directed by Gary Graves and written by Martin Edwards, the play takes place in modern-day Los Angeles at an ailing ad agency run by an infantile creative director, Roger (Tim Redmond), and his naive, quasi-girlfriend and assistant, Caitlin (Maggie Mason). Roger’s boss, Bob (Brian Trybom), flies in from the New York office to fire Roger and hire Roger’s ex-wife (and ex-partner), Maggie (Deborah Fink), in his stead. Bob instead finds out that Roger has nearly secured a client with deep pockets and attempts to force the ex-lovers to make nice in order to secure the account, save the failing office, reconcile their relationship, and kumbaya, etc. Of course, as anyone who’s ever worked in an industry that rewards cutthroat competition and bloated egos may suspect, things don’t end anywhere near happily ever after.
Pitch Perfect is not so much a critique as it is a “fuck you” to the ad business. This is due, in part, to playwright Edwards, a former creative director for a “worldwide agency” with fifteen years of the ad biz under his belt. The program even offer a brief summation of his own firing from an agency due to his inflated ego. “Every moment in the play has roots in real events,” states Martin. “[I]t’s inspired by real situations I lived through and real people I worked with.” Truth may be stranger than fiction, but one gets the sense that Martin could have benefited from a little distance in this case.
While Pitch Perfect is far from a perfect comedy, it does excel at schadenfreude. The suspense is built at a meandering pace, adding more treachery to the already jaded bunch until its inevitable knife-twisting conclusion. The play’s sparse set (a few scorched IKEA desks, a thrift store bean bag, and a giant projection of a question mark make up the stage for the majority) and small cast lend an air of intimacy to the performance, but as the play unfolds, no real mysteries are exposed or conflicts solved. The characters stay stuck in their limited roles, gradually revealing themselves to be more and more despicable, backstabbing, and childish. The two men can barely dress themselves, let alone run a business. The threat of cancer is trotted out and then forgotten. Expletives are hurled and threats are issued. There’s no redemption here. No dire needs. Just spoiled men yelling at each other and the women who betray them. In that sense, there is a level of gratification when certain characters (I won’t spoil which) get their comeuppance. But the bar is set so low that clearing it provides little satisfaction.
The most audience-alienating of the bunch is Roger, with whom our allegiances are supposed to be aligned, due to his stage time and the fact that all of the characters’ relationships hinge on him in some way. But we can’t root for Roger. He’s bro-ish at best, traitorous at worst (we eventually learn that he throws even his own wife under the bus in order to advance his career). Roger is the kind of person who builds sofa forts at work, wields toilet brushes as superhero scepters, and dry humps his ex-wife’s couch, to name just a few of his endearing moments. “There’s a lot of me in Roger,” Edwards notes in the press release, and one hopes he’s exaggerating.
While the writing lacks dimensionality, the actors carry us most of the way through the snippets of People Behaving Badly. Trybom booms as the archetypal, barely-holding-it-together adman. Mason’s portrayal of Caitlin, at first coquettish and mawkish, proves just as ruthless as the rest of the sharks. My favorite moment came near the end; it was just a glance between Roger and Maggie. A whoosh of remorse flashes across Maggie’s face as she leaves everything behind, Roger, the scene, and the play. In that look was a blink of her humanity, an element that was sorely missing throughout the majority of the play.
“This business is not about treasuring what you have, but coveting what you don’t,” says Bob, in one of the play’s only poignant lines. In the end, Pitch Perfect is much like the advertising business itself — full of ambition, but lacking substance.