note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Susan Daniels
If you think of accountants as just buttoned down, stodgy pencil-pushers, then the fast-paced, dark comedy “Professional Skepticism,” which runs through November 14 at the Actors Workshop Proscenium Theatre, will correct this miscalculation. Written by local playwright James Rasheed, who chalked up ten years as an accountant before earning a master’s degree in playwrighting at Brandeis University, the story of backstabbing rivalry during an audit at an accounting firm demonstrated an uncanny prescience. Rasheed wrote and workshopped the play at Brandeis one year before the Enron and WorldCom scandals hit the newspapers.
The timely show features four ambitious auditors in a Big Five accounting firm in Charleston, S.C., who bluff and bludgeon their way through a critical audit with an incredibly short deadline. The formula for deception and alliances, as they “cook the books” is as fresh, funny, and frightening as today’s headlines.
Leo (Jim Stark), the senior accountant, is as slick as a carney and as quick with a putdown as Don Rickles at a friar’s roast. Despite having failed the final section of the accountant’s certification exam during multiple attempts -- Both his junior colleagues passed on their first try -- Leo ostensibly controls the ebb and flow of the office as well as the minds and hearts of his underlings. Like his colleagues, he sniffs around the jugular, waiting to strike at optimal moments.
Greg (Nick Newell), the God-fearing Yankee and new guy on the block, aced the exam with the highest possible score. But with Leo as his first act guru, he realizes that book smarts pale in comparison to office guile. Intent on getting ahead by slandering his co-workers, Greg captures the big boss’s attention, despite his minimal output. The officious, earnest Paul (Blake White) is somewhat of a doofus, but an endearing one, naively displaying traces of gayness in a not so subtle manner. With his love of rules and his penchant for following them, it is an easy leap for him to blow the whistle after discovering a host of irregularities committed by his co-workers. In the second act, he exchanges his goody-two-shoes appearance for a pin striped power suit and slicked back hair, waving in a plot twist that creates a new king of the hill.
The three men create a palpable chemistry in the tight confines of their work space, while graphically defining their individual characters as clearly as Paul lines up his ledgers, stapler, and pens on his desk each day. Their below the surface maneuverings produce a compelling portrait where homophobia is used as a weapon, particularly at the end of the play when Paul’s speech on professional skepticism incorporates numerous gay references -- We all want to be on top -- that, in context, are as witty as they are searing.
The one weak link is Peggy Trecker’s characterization of Margaret, an accountant on another project team. Trecker’s stab at touchy-feely sensuality rings hollow in the workplace, and the manner in which she carries herself -- upper torso leaning backwards -- is annoying and unsightly.
Nevertheless, the play zips along under the direction of Chip Egan, one of Rasheed’s professors as an undergraduate in South Carolina, the playwright’s home state.
A solid production, “Professional Skepticism” adds up all the numbers in a winning way. With good (and funny) writing, fine acting, and Southern charm dripping with daggers, Rasheed’s voice is a welcome addition to the local pool of talented playwrights.
“Professional Skepticism,” through November 14.
Actors’ Workshop Proscenium Theatre, 327 Summer Street, Boston. Tickets
$20 - $28; For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 866-811-4111.