By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The unspecified manufacturing plant at the heart of Kevin King’s comedy-drama The Idea Man (which opened last week at Hollywood’s Elephant Theatre) has a “Gillette account,” referring to the razors and razorblades being produced there, among other products. There’s a cutting metaphor in there which you don’t need to search too hard to find. The detailed set design (credited to Elephant Stageworks) includes welding stations lined along the walls of the tiny stage. The realism in the design creates a naturalistic and enveloping atmosphere of the workplace, which supports and, in subtle ways, also stifles King’s richly textured examination of the class divide within that factory and, by implication, across America’s dwindling manufacturing base.
When Al Carson (James Pippi), a bright machinist and union rep, visits the salubrious home of plant manager Simmons (David Franco), Al’s awe and awkwardness are apparent in Pippi’s expressions, as though he’s looking out over a spacious living room with a built-in bar and a tennis court outside, while all we see are those welding machines, tucked into the grime and tattiness that the set design creates so fastidiously — and which the play refers to in an earlier scene.
As directed by David Fofi in a style that combines earthy David Mamet/Steppenwolf Theatre realism with occasional hints of a sitcom in the making, the ensemble is so good that the production rides largely on the strengths of the atmosphere and the actors. It’s also a strong play for its ability to bypass stereotypes as it ensnares workplace conflicts — all through taut, smart dialogue that’s a front for some churning emotional subtext. Scenes concerning the marriages of the principal characters, though nicely performed, are broader in scope, and less penetrating in their observations.
Al has just won the “suggestion of the month” prize, sponsored by the plant manager, for a redesign of sorts, a way of generating exponentially more efficiency in the production of razorblades. He’d worked with some engineers when he was in the Navy, but he’s a novice at this sort of thing, and he jotted down his idea on yellow notebook paper and stuffed it in the suggestion box. As it happens, the idea could be worth millions of dollars in potential savings to the company, and for this, Simmons is willing to reward Al with a check for $100 and a laminated plaque with his name on it — on the condition that Al signs over the rights to his design. Obviously, Simmons doesn’t underestimate the engineering intelligence of the machinist grunt from the first floor, but he clearly underestimates Al’s savvy. Simmons’ mantra, “It’s about the company,” rings as hollow to Al as it does to us. If Simmons honestly believes his own words, he’s deranged. If he doesn’t, he’s a hypocrite. Franco’s slightly sneering interpretation leans toward the latter, like a winking Tartuffe. The production might be richer if he actually believed his platitudes, shifting the author’s attitude on corporate malfeasance from immoral to amoral. The play seems to support such a view.
Al takes the plaque and the check, but neglects to cash it — or to return the form surrendering his rights to his design. He is no fool.
At the same time that Simmons has invited Al to his upstairs office to receive his commendation and check, he’s also summoned a staff engineer and graduate of the University of Michigan named Frank (Robert Foster), whose assignment is to make Al’s design work. This is a challenge for Frank, who is actually the Idea Man of the title — that’s his job, to come up with ideas and make them work. For this, he needs Al’s help, but Al is seething with resentment over his station in life, and fully cognizant of the insult represented by his check for $100.
What ensues is a series of artfully conceived scenes between the pair — a blue collar–white collar cat-and-mouse game in which the roles of cat and mouse keep shifting. Frank starts the game by floating down to lunch with Al in the machine shop, just for a “change of scenery” — an explanation that nobody believes.
The beauty of this production lies in the silences and glances when Frank shows up on the machine-room floor with his sack lunch, just to hang out with the guys (Tim Starks, George Russo and Frank Merino). Frank’s attempts to fit in are not entirely feckless, or this would be a farce. Frank’s efforts (beautifully rendered by Foster) are just slightly overplayed, his quips a little too forced, his arm gesture a touch too broad when combined with his subtly ingratiating effort to enter into a card game. Frank’s exile from the working class lingers on the margins of pain.