Sophisticated theater needn't be tedious or unnecessarily complex. Eat the Runt—a weirdly yet fully engaging new production from GroundWorks Theatre under the fine direction of A. Sean O'Connell—may attack the stuffy, behind-the-scenes inner workings of a contemporary arts organization, but it does so with delicious sarcasm and accessible, generally recognizable characters.
The obscure world of "development" and grant writing for a museum may seem an esoteric dramatic setting, but it doesn't stop playwright Avery Crozier from slyly locating the universal human truths that are found when bureaucratic artsy types fumble their way through their official business.
Crozier's play was originally conceived with a casting gimmick in mind: Actors would be selected pre-show by the audience to fill its various roles. That might prove interesting in a long-run situation, but GroundWorks has realistically chosen the more conventional process for its short engagement. The script proves to be smart and funny enough to be played straight ahead—and it plays out in 90 minutes in two tight acts.
Merritt, a candidate for a grant-writing position, arrives for a series of important interviews with museum muckety-mucks, moving from human resources to trustee, to development director to curator, and finally to the museum head. Yet no one asks him about grant writing. Instead, the interviews encompass a foot rub, commiseration about mutual physical ailments, a discussion of Ayn Rand, plus other untoward chatter that exposes the interviewers' neuroses and self-absorption. A huge reveal toward the end of Act 1 turns the play's progress upside-down, while Act 2 proceeds to even more effectively lampoon the insecurities, foibles and follies of white-collar, wine-and cheese artistic caretaker types.
If Crozier's subject matter seems rather specialized, he utilizes razor-sharp dialogue to make sure his broader points are made—mainly about hierarchic power struggles, the dubious nature of so-called meritocratic hiring practices and the phoniness that can lie beneath political correctness.
Director O'Connell's cast is certainly on the right page. That includes some newer faces like Reischa Feuerbacher (a noted local dancer, but good here as the HR functionary), Lily Palmer (in a nice central turn as the unfailingly upbeat in-house candidate for the big job) and Cee Anthony, the interviewee whose initially somewhat nerdy look and buttoned-down persona provide good cover for his transpiring manipulations.
Veteran players Adele Akin, Frank Preston and Marc Mazzone also create distinctive characters, and Lisa Marie Wright pulls off a deft and entertaining Jekyll/Hyde act, first as the uptight brunette curator Hollis, then later as Pinky, the Southern, red-haired, sensual-voiced museum boss.
There's a trick ending here, so no spoilers. But know that Eat the Runt is welcome theater all the way—a thoughtfully selected local premiere, thoroughly well produced and acted, and not afraid to satirize the very kind of folks who might readily make up its audience. (The offbeat title is eventually explained. You'll have to go to find out.)