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Below the Belt

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 7/23/2003

Below the Belt

Richard Dresser

Richard Dresser's obsidian-dark Below the Belt takes place in a brutish fantasy world. And it takes place in the here and now. Its characters are over-the-top monsters and they are the folks you work with. Dresser has created a savage corporate netherworld of maddening ambiguity, and his absurd amplifications only serve to show us how we behave on any given Tuesday afternoon. Vanity, suspicion, greed, self-doubt--in less than two hours, Dresser rubs our faces in them all.

Dobbitt (Zak Jeffries) is a "work checker" on an "off country" assignment in a live-in factory "compound." His like-titled roommate, Hanrahan (Steven B. Thomas), greets his chipper roomie with an iceberg shoulder and 16 tons of attitude. Hanrahan forces Dobbitt to respond to questions like, "Are you brave enough to admit you're a coward?" When a desperate Dobbitt asks what Hanrahan has against him, the latter responds, "You're alive on the planet at the same time I am."

A grating buzzer summons the lock-horn bunkies to the office of bossman Merkin (Mark Krawczyk, intense but for a few slips), a master of honey-then-vinegar tactics. He tells Dobbitt that he should feel free to come and go as he pleases, then sends him on his way with a curt "you're dismissed."

And the men put each other down. A lot. Hanrahan calls Merkin a "malicious, two-faced bottom feeder," while Merkin dubs Hanrahan a "scurrilous puss-muncher." When I first saw Below the Belt (at the late Axis Theatre some years back), these tart put-downs seemed contrived, too "written." After this show, I realize that Dresser's overly erudite dialogue is but one more example of his exaggeration-for-edification conceit. Office politics revolve around petty gossip, subtle power games, and agenda-driven gestures. Dresser pumps these realities up, giving them the subtlety of brickbats, while making them ludicrously amusing.

The performances are largely solid, and the three-man play is perfect for the Top Floor, with its cramped and awkward stage standing in well for the grimy "compound." Director Jamie Sinsz also does an admirable job using the limited room. While Dobbitt and Hanrahan spar in the spotlight, Merkin sits at his darkened desk in the foreground--suggesting the endless drudgery of this mythical white-collar gulag. Grim stuff. But in the manner of all successful black comedies, eminently engaging.

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