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.
Director Fofi supports this divide with technical details of their eating and drinking habits — Bud versus Heineken. In one scene from the top floor, the lanky, fitness-conscious Simmons, while about to screw over yet another employee, enters cheerfully gulping down spoonfuls of yogurt from a tiny plastic carton. We’re not only what we do, we’re what we eat and drink.
Such details, however, don’t mask less authentic dimensions of a production rooted to authenticity. That Simmons would invite top management to fly in from God knows where, this coming weekend, no less, for a presentation on Al’s suggestion — even before Frank has had the opportunity to test it — reveals a management style so reckless, it’s hard to believe Simmons would have acquired such success, or credibility, among his superiors. Yet it’s on this somewhat contrived stress test that playwright King builds the play’s suspense.
Social scenes set in homes and involving Frank’s and Al’s spouses also play out the class divide, but in a style belonging to a different play, or plays: At Frank’s home, Al and his garish wife, Francine (Kerry Carny), cavalierly make scatological remarks, causing Frank’s wife, Maureen (Gina Garrison, in a lovely, tightly wired performance), to wince beneath her pasted-on smile. Here we’ve drifted into a sitcom. The farce gets even broader when Francine raids Al’s poker game wielding a pistol, after having found a pair of panties under the seat of their car. The ensuing hostage drama is a great comedic scene for Carny, resulting in the confession by Al that he’s been working with Frank on the project — a confession that would theoretically escalate tensions between Al and his jealous colleagues, a vital dimension of the workplace drama. That tension, however, is dropped, as though the scene existed mainly to give Francine a cameo.
It’s sweet, however, to see the formerly self-sabotaging Al finally hold the company hostage for his coveted design. And the irony that his notion, and the efficiency it allows, will predicate the end of the factory is part of an American story for the 21st century. This production is a strong premiere of an important play; the ideas in it are so fine, they deserve refining.
THE IDEA MAN | By KEVIN KING | Presented by Elephant Theatre Company, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Through June 13 | (323) 960-4410