The guy in the cubicle next to yours is part of your mental landscape. Over the past year, you’ve learned about his significant other, his tiger cats, his voyages, and his taste for food that reminds him of a little café he once visited 50 miles from Phnom Penh. Half his day seems taken up by phone conversations about condominiums, mortgage payments he will share with his partner, and their future together. He’s part of the air you breathe. Then one day, you come back from lunch, and the cubicle next to yours is bare. Nothing could bring home more powerfully how disposable was his oft-stated loyalty to his colleagues and the company, how perishable the persona that had encroached like kudzu in your mind.
The scenario is familiar, yet its implications are still partly unexplored. If this is the reality for so many professionals with years or decades of service under their belt, then what, exactly, does it mean to be a temp? Status-wise, a temp appears to some of us to be somewhere down there with that other reprobate, the intern, whose name, personality, and quirks are as tangible as mist.
The status of a temp—professional, personal, metaphysical—is one of the themes that Adam Bock, the playwright behind Soho Rep’s new production, The Thugs, discussed over breakfast at a midtown diner recently. It is commonplace to write about love, the family, and related topics, but Bock remarked that since moving to New York recently, where everyone works all the time, he has turned to the themes of work and work cultures.
Bock is not only a gifted playwright who has won the Glickman Award, two BATCC awards, and other prizes, he also has the dirt on the work cultures of some of our highest and mightiest law firms. The nether status of the temps in the murky law-firm subculture is part of the inspiration for The Thugs.
Temps may have it rougher than many of us. And yet given the frequency of the type of scenario described above, Bock may be right to suggest that the common definition of who is or who is not a temp may be rather arbitrary. For whom, besides a handful of the most powerful, is not in a tenuous marriage of convenience? Bock recalls living and working in the Bay Area in the 1990s at the time that many of the dot-com startups went bust, confronting everyone with the reality of white-collar workers with years of service getting the order, “all right, clean out your desk and go home.” The temps may be on the lowest rung of an endemic condition, and their plight raises intriguing questions. If you feel that the energy firm whose legal division you work for is in thrall to a few of its richest shareholders and to Dick Cheney, or that your company’s policy of quietly adding arsenic-based ingredients to chicken feed is causing some residents of a town to be born with seven fingers, it’s in your best interest to shut up. Indeed, in a number of scenes in The Thugs, workers in the law firm where all the action unfolds whisper about an unspeakable act that has taken place on another floor—someone has died gruesomely—but the impetus for taking action is missing. They must wonder who is going to listen to a temp, and what weight such testimony would carry against one of the few who enjoy real influence. In the words of the temp named Bart: “Someone’s killing people. In the building. Anyone have gum?”
The weighty and the commonplace blur in Bock’s staccato dialogue, reflecting a climate where the temps do not know how to proceed, do not know what is real and what is gossip, do not know what they’re responsible for and what falls outside their purview as temps, even if a murder soils the august halls of the firm. Again, certain situations seem peculiar to temps; and yet you could find no more eloquent comment on the status of salaried peons in a large company, or citizens of a polity where the news cycle shifts wildly from one sound byte to another against a backdrop of war, natural disaster, and unrest. In this play, concerns about workaday tasks and metaphysical matters blur surreally:
DAPHNE: You got an extra highlighter?
MERCEDES: It’s not funny.
ELAINE: I’m I’m I’m.
DIANE: Nothing’s gonna happen to you Mercedes.
ELAINE: You never know!
MERCEDES: You don’t!
DAPHNE: Anyone got a green one?
This terse, rapid-fire patter strikes the viewer immediately. Bock goes for verisimilitude; he’s fascinated with speech, and too keen a student of speech patterns to ignore the ways that words really come out, in short bursts, or in streams that meander and double-back to return to their source and flow in new channels, the ways that speech reflects thought processes so much more than the polished prose we see in print. “If you listen how people talk, they rarely say a full sentence,” Bock points out. He’s intrigued with the way that phrases and nods and stock utterances like “right,” “sure,” and “uh-huh” can compress and convey multiple meanings in the face of a reality we may be unable or unwilling to face with our full analytical arsenal. You may be struck by the super-minimalism of the rapid-fire colloquialisms that fill the play, but what this understatement reveals is that Bock, to put it simply, is a playwright who has taken the trouble to analyze how people express themselves. “I create emotion through language onstage,” he says.
An artistic associate at Shotgun Players and the Encore Theater, a member of MCC’s Playwrights’ Coalition, and the creative force behind Five Flights and other successful plays, Adam Bock is reunited on The Thugs with director Anne Kauffman, who directed Bock’s Typographer’s Dream at the Encore in San Francisco. Their cast includes Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Brad Heberlee, Carmen Herlihy, Chris Heuisler, Keira Keeley, Lynne McCollough, Maria Elena Ramirez, and Mary Shultz.
To view The Thugs is to enter a world where we see, in Bock’s words, “the social fabric being a bit too loose for these people, because no one wants temps.” It is a play that resonates with unanswered personal, professional, and philosophical questions, and they are not comforting ones. The Thugs performs at Soho Rep, 46 Walker St., Manhattan thru October 28.
Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.