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THEATER REVIEW : Animals of the Boardroom : 'Backstabbing,' Scott Seiffert's play about business, doesn't realize its full savage and comic potential.

June 04, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You can only wish the best for any play that wants to show that corporate life is barely different from the kind lived in the jun gle. You want it to succeed, since few playwrights are even skirting this world anymore.

Scott Seiffert does more than skirt it in his new play, "Backstabbing," at the Richard Basehart Playhouse. But he doesn't exactly realize the full savage and comic potential of his subject either.

He divides his two acts into (1) setup and (2) payoff, and pushes his characters along their proscribed paths with a control freak's glee exhibited by chief corporate shark and QuoTronics Systems President George Thaxton (Charles Howerton). To paraphrase Thaxton, he enjoys putting his underlings' private parts "to the fire"--for no reason, apparently, than the sheer pleasure of injecting fear in others. Thaxton's rule is that those on top rule by fear and lose when they're no longer so fearsome.

Howerton suggests this ruthless code through his eyes better than he does speaking Seiffert's sometimes paint-by-numbers dialogue (it's almost all dialogue here, and little language ). He plays Thaxton not as an actual boss, but as a bad business dude out of the movies, and it's this kind of exaggeration you wish would extend to the rest of the play and Cythnia Baer's staging. Both are a little too timid to go out on a farcical and satiric limb, which is unfortunate since "Backstabbing" should get down and dirty like a naughty Joe Orton black comedy.

The firm's elder statesman has even died before the play's opening, in Ortonesque style--by cardiac arrest during orgasm with a senior company director. It's Thaxton's jungle to rule now, with the help of his "yes man" Richard (Dana Craig), and it's time to fill the vice president post. The four candidates hate each other: tense John (Loren Lester), ruthless Ileen (Linda Gary), witless Chuck (Brad Trumbull) and wily David (Seiffert).

Everyone has a reason to kill somebody--except perhaps faithful secretary Shelly (Jacky Pratley), who turns out not to be as innocent as she seems. No one is, in fact, but Chuck, and he's a pure idiot who prattles off quotes from the Wall Street Journal.

One problem with "Backstabbing" is that it's real enough to make us wonder why an outfit this big and powerful would ever put up with someone like Chuck for very long. But by far the biggest dilemma is the play's lack of ingenuity: Any good whodunit solver in the audience will figure out what's going on in Act II long before anyone on stage does. Seiffert's plot is cynically consistent, but it never catches us short.

Besides Howerton, Trumbull has the most fun chattering on, but can't prevent his shtick with set designer Brent Altomare's and William James' automatic door from getting tiresome. That door is a cute nod to "Get Smart" (just as Jason Kai Cooper's lights are a nod to Agatha Christie), but the set is placed so deep into the Basehart's proscenium stage that the action feels pointlessly distant.

This is a handicap for Baer's actors, from Lester trying to show John's rage bubbling inside to Seiffert trying to show that David really has the stuff to run the company. Gary comes across by pouring on the bitchiness, and Craig aptly blends into the decor, but Pratley doesn't communicate the pragmatic smarts Shelly is supposed to have.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Backstabbing."

Location: Richard Basehart Playhouse, 21028-B Victory Blvd., Woodland Hills.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays through June 27.

Price: $14-$16.

Call: (818) 704-1845.

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