Remember the downsized employee's parting shot to his boss in the movie "Broadcast News," the wish that echoed in a hundred thousand human resources departments? "I certainly hope you'll die soon," the gentleman said. This sentiment more or less summarizes the loving workplace atmosphere of "Tabletop," Rob Ackerman's acutely observed play about an advertising-world martinet and the studio in which he plies his profoundly petty trade.
A comedy about advertising almost by definition has to concern itself with the absurd magnification of very insignificant matters, and "Tabletop," trenchantly brought to life by Round House Theatre and director Jane Beard, is no exception. Marcus (Jerry Whiddon), a graying eminence of the 30-second spot -- he films the products you see in commercials -- is on a tight deadline to make a new frozen fruit drink look like the Catherine Zeta-Jones of gooey beverages, and his bedside manner is slightly less genteel than that of Stanley Kowalski.
He's a bully and a screamer, berating the underlings: Oscar the lighting guy (Craig Wallace); Jeffrey the prop man (David Marks); Dave the camera operator (Todd Scofield); Andrea the producer (Lee Mikeska Gardner); and most brutally, Ron (Aubrey Deeker), the fresh-faced studio manager, who is bursting with ideas and thus thoroughly intimidates the crude, aging Marcus. The dynamic here is familiar to anyone who has ever worked for someone with the lungs, but not the courage, for real leadership.
With its locker-room ambiance and tech-world vocabulary, "Tabletop" feels at times as if Ackerman composed it with David Mamet standing over his shoulder. The play is very smart about the way men converse at work, about why shop talk is such a comfortable masculine language. It makes every guy sound competent; it's intimacy without the commitment. Even Andrea, the sole woman in the studio, tries to assimilate, barking orders in a mannish way. Though, of course, she gets no credit for assertiveness; in the men's eyes, Marcus is a temperamental genius, and she's just a pain in the neck. (The men put it more colorfully.)
The comedy here has to do with the loss of proportion, how much the studio denizens make of their pathetic task, applying the techniques of Leni Riefenstahl to a drink to be served in a fast-food franchise called Chicken Lickin'. The laughs are in the jobs these grown-ups engage in, and it seems all the more ridiculous given the financial stakes and the intensity with which they work. The shot that Marcus has to make is of "the pour," in which the concoction has to look thick and lustrous as it fills a cup embedded in a display of fruit.
The more things go wrong with the pour -- "Spray the grapes, not the [epithet] lemon!" Marcus shouts, as if Ron has smudged Adam's index finger on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel -- the sillier the endeavor becomes. Marcus storms in and out of an office behind the film set, realistically assembled by the dead-on scenic designer, James Kronzer, and when the spotlights are switched on and the crew members train their gaze hopefully on the fruit, it's both satirical and sad. This is the narrow lens, Ackerman seems to be saying, through which these skilled workers are forced to live their lives.
"Tabletop" -- the title refers to the surface Marcus uses to shoot his subjects -- is the kind of play that could only have been written by someone who's been there; it has the quality of exaggerated memoir. It's also about 20 minutes too long. Film actors often talk about the monotony of filmmaking, and here we get a more detailed portrait of the lulls than is required. "Tension and boredom," says a character in the play, and by the end of "Tabletop," you know what he means. The playwright gingerly sprinkles bits of subplot over the proceedings: One man, for instance, is involved in a romance that he keeps from his co-workers. But there isn't quite enough drama to fill the play's more than 100 intermissionless minutes.
Still, when "Tabletop" is exploring the camaraderie and competitiveness of a soul-sapping business, it does so with a satisfying authority. It's most persuasive in its suggestion that amid the props and cameras is where these people have their most fulfilling moments.
The actors have been extremely well cast, and Beard deploys them expertly. Gardner, wearing drab slacks and a no-nonsense grimace, and Marks, in a T-shirt and ponytail, seem so native to the environment that they could be playing these characters on a reality show. Wallace and Scofield bring pleasing depth and a physical believability to the sorts of working stiffs who are the backbone of every job site.
Whiddon's Marcus flies rewardingly off the handle. He's the template for that insufferable martinet, the angry know-it-all, a coward who masks his insecurity behind a vicious temper and uses "art" as an excuse for his behavior. Deeker is every inch his match; he's the office maverick, fearless and impulsive, and the actor invests in him a touch of the weirdo. Deeker is another young performer of style worth keeping close tabs on. He'll be popping up on other stages -- and, no doubt, in other studios.
Tabletop, by Rob Ackerman. Directed by Jane Beard. Set, James Kronzer; costumes, Denise Umland; lighting, Kristin A. Thompson; sound, Matthew M. Nielson. Approximately 1 hour 50 minutes. Through Oct. 31 at Round House Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.