When it’s good, Theresa Rebeck’s salty office comedy “What We’re Up Against” is a swift and merrily vicious kick in the pants. It’s a fast satire about a talented woman and the dull, bigoted men who rule her workplace. The entertaining part is that she fights dirty.
The not-so-entertaining part is how obvious the play is half the time: What can you do with such straight-up sexist pigs? Rebeck’s wrathful, foulmouthed script keeps the energy high, and at the small Keegan Theatre (which has the D.C. premiere of this 2011 play), director Susan Marie Rhea creates a bright, brisk production that nails the play’s most pivotal moments.
The heroine is the whip-smart and deliberately hard-to-like Eliza, played with ferocity and fiery resentment by Brianna Letourneau. She’s sick of being shoved to the edges of her architectural firm — a plain fact that’s wittily rendered by Matthew J. Keenan’s set, which features a floor plan of the firm’s office on the back wall. The plan shows exactly who gets big offices and who gets the broom closets.
The prolific Rebeck (at least 20 plays and lots of TV, from “NYPD Blue” to creating “Smash”) concocts a tight little plot about a design that’s stumping everyone in the office except Eliza. Why won’t they use her idea? Because — just because. Stu, the supervisor, is a bourbon-swilling sexist ape who, trash-talking Eliza to a male colleague, calls her every vile name in the book. Peter Finnegan plays the part with a pickled grin and at least a dash of understatement, but Stu’s high jinks aren’t always easy to laugh at. Neither is the casual crassness of his yes-man sidekick, despite all the quirky cornball gestures Stephen Russell Murray works in.
Letourneau’s blunt, unapologetic fury is effective for Eliza, though, and Michael Innocenti is flat-out hilarious as the semi-conscientious Ben. It’s practically a one-joke role: Ben is obsessed with getting the design right. Yet Innocenti perpetually mines gold out of that narrow focus, and his long final scene tallying the backbiting wreckage with Letourneau’s Eliza is terrific.
The script is arresting when Rebeck finally starts making her points. Do men still really talk about women this way? (Ahem.) A subplot involving Eliza and the office’s only other woman, Janice, has some of the play’s roughest edges and harshest commentary, and Carolyn Kashner is good at showing how the dim Janice is always about two beats behind.
Rhea keeps the production buzzing by bridging scenes with some of pop music’s greatest misogynistic hits, from “Under My Thumb” to “Blurred Lines.” On the nose? Very, but so is Rebeck’s point and her plot, which — bland patches notwithstanding — snaps to a funny, surprisingly satisfying ending.
What We’re Up Against by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Susan Marie Rhea. Costumes, Alison Samantha Johnson; lights, Allan Sean Weeks; sound design, Madeline Clamp. About two hours. Through Oct. 15 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets $35-$45. Call 202-265-3767 or visit keegantheatre.com.