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‘Fundamentals’ at Steppenwolf: Downstairs at posh hotel, no Up button for the service crew

Submitted by on Dec 11, 2016 – 1:59 pm

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“The Fundamentals,” by Erika Sheffer, at Steppenwolf Theatre through Dec. 31. ★★★
By Nancy Malitz

The time is right for “The Fundamentals,” a sly new play by Erika Sheffer now upstairs at Steppenwolf. With mega-corps in the news for claiming ignorance of malfeasance so widespread it involves thousands of workers — while simultaneously selling the perfume of lofty company ideals — Sheffer zeroes in on the souls who draw the paychecks and suffer the joke.

The story is set in the present, at The Bakerville, a boutique hotel in midtown Manhattan. All we see of its public polish and luxury are some serene advertising and training videos and a cartoonish mid-level female executive with stylish hair and a custom-made suit – her “call me Eliza” insincerity dripping from every word.

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Any hotel guest who has mistakenly walked through a wrong hallway door will recognize the cinder-block area where the story of “The Fundamentals” unfolds. Designer Collette Pollard isn’t exaggerating in her depiction of this drab beck-and-call world of canvas laundry carts and discarded furniture, bulletin boards and surveillance cameras. There is no posh serenity here. The elevator door has no windows. A boss can emerge at any time.

The plot turns on the circumstance of well-liked, brown-skinned, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly Millie (Alana Arenas), who at 26 is beginning to suspect that her attempts to rise through the ranks into management will require … something … she’s not sure yet what, but it seems to be more than what she’s got.

The comedy is acid-dry in the interchange between Millie and her well-manicured boss Eliza (pitch-perfect Audrey Francis), who spouts embarrassed babble by way of explaining why Millie was passed over. Eliza lands on the notion that Millie’s just “so good” at what she already does that, well, you know where that line goes, along with another little bit of Millie’s faith in the toolkit of integrity.

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Meanwhile, the gal who got job Millie was after — Stellan (Caroline Neff) — has no hotel experience, but she’s young, blonde, a would-be actress and brazenly confident in her skin. Stellan is asking for pointers, and open-hearted Millie, who dropped out of college when she became pregnant a decade ago, is groping for a way to catch up. Millie decides to go ahead and bond with the newbie, to be a pal.

While she’s at it, Millie also decides to become more useful to Eliza, who has asked for help meeting expectations in the areas of cost-cutting and protective oversight, as part of a vague promise that there might be a path toward promotion after all. Millie knows of an employee who’s enabling prostitution, but ratting on a fellow worker has seemed the bigger sin until her re-think begins and she plows ahead, with increasingly strong inducements, into dangerous territory.

alan-wilder-michael-brosilowAs calls come in for plumbing and lighting and random guest requests, we meet the other regulars – kindly boss Abe (Alan Wilder), who has seen it all in 30 years on the job, yet is still the naïve soft touch for seekers of another chance; and Millie’s loser husband, Lorenzo (Armando Riesco), also part of the crew, yet fixated on his next absurd get-rich-quick scheme, a $1,000 toothpick.

David Mamet would have a field day skewering them all, but playwright Sheffer and director Yasen Peyankov seem less scathing cynics than the play at first suggests. I think Sheffer actually likes Millie and is more interested in the subtle tragedy of her center cracking than she is in the burning comedy of the whole rigged and forlorn scenario. There’s also less of “Yup, the world sucks,” and more of a misery pipe wailing “It could happen to you” in the lovely, likable, flawed creature that Arenas plays.

But the various turns of the plot in the saga’s second half, some of which beggar belief, don’t support the penetrating character-study of Millie that is at least implied. Sudden, public recklessness first by Lorenzo, and then by good old Abe, seemed more like experimental sketches than integrated plot lines, and so does Stellan’s squaring off against her boss in a brazen newbie con.

To believe all that would require some hallucinating. But then, you could say the same these days about the real news.

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Housekeeping camaraderie revolves around the lost-and-found bin in "The Fundamentals" at Steppenwolf. (Michael Brosilow)

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