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Thursday, February 22, 2024

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PerformanceOnstageReview: 'Disruption' offers timely #metoo twist on tech scandals

Review: ‘Disruption’ offers timely #metoo twist on tech scandals

3Girls Theatre Company’s latest dramatizes double standards in the workplace, with high stakes but a limited scope.

ONSTAGE Since the #MeToo movement burst on the scene, it has illuminated the epidemic of sexual harassment that has long afflicted women in all kinds of jobs—from agricultural workers to actors, from restaurant workers to realtors from professors to park rangers.

It’s no surprise that it is rampant among the “tech-bro” culture of Silicon Valley, even among the highest echelons of the corporate structure. Witness the high profile sex discrimination case by Ellen Pao, a former venture capital executive, that sent shock waves through the world of tech finance.

So 3Girls Theatre Company’s production of Disruption at Z Space (through April 29) is definitely timely, although it offers a twist.

Playwright AJ Baker sets the drama smack dab in the middle of the booming biotech industry, when GeneFarm, headed by Dr. Andrea “Andy” Powell (Sally Dana), is just about to go public with a breakthrough drug called Miracle.

CEO Andy Powell (Sally Dana) and her chief of staff Cris Friend (Heather Gordon) get advice from their lawyer Vivian Starr (Nancy Madden in ‘Disruption. Photo by Mario Parnell.

When an anonymous whistleblower threatens to sue and go viral with accusations about the reliability of the clinical trials, Powell and her all-woman team have just one day to halt the disruption of the launch and the subsequent public relations (and financial) disaster. 

The action takes place in the expensive but sterile offices (perfectly designed by Jeff Wincek, down to the swivel chairs, the wood veneer credenzas, and the bland art on the walls) of the mediator, retired Judge Manny Diamond (played by Louis Parnell, who also directed the show). 

A laptop is always open on the desk and everyone has a cell phone at hand (although the elderly judge’s is a flip phone and he is mystified by the ubiquitous #, which he calls a number-sign). Negotiations are tense between the two sides, but the stakes become even higher when the whistleblower threatens to add a multi-million dollar sexual harassment charge to the lawsuit. The women realize the accuser is Laszlo Elza (Timothy Roy Redmond), a former head of global sales for GeneFarm, who had a short fling with Powell when she was still reeling from her husband’s death.

Powell’s team is fortified by the tough, salty attorney Vivian Starr, played with great wit and aplomb by Nancy Madden. Starr previously represented Powell in a successful sexual harassment suit against her former employer, and—because these current charges against Powell mirror the ones she brought in that suit—she smells a rat. 

But a whiff of rat does not a solid defense make, and most of the drama is taken up by trying to figure out the identity, the ulterior motives, and the financial backer of Powell’s accuser. Powell almost figures it out when she agrees to a back-channel meeting, where a smug and sleazy Elza lays on the false charm so thick that you wonder what she ever saw in him. She wonders, too.

The play stays pretty much on an even keel throughout, which unfortunately drains the initial tension. Glimmers of warmth emerge when Baker allows her characters a moment of reflection. In one scene, CEO Powell’s seemingly impenetrable veneer is cracked by a moving emotional confession about her husband’s death and the impact on her daughter. In another, we get a glimpse of the internal life of attorney Starr: When Powell asks her how long she’s been married, she responds, “I’m not.” When Powell presses, “Kids?”  Starr answers, “Cats.  I’m a stereotype.” Perhaps, but a stereotype with guts and smarts to spare.

Laszlo Elza (Timothy Roy Redmond) makes his case to CEO Andy Powell (Sally Dana) in ‘Disruption.’ Photo by Mario Parnell

Yet these moments are not sustained long enough to deepen either the drama or our understanding of the characters. Perhaps if Baker had stretched a little further beyond the corporate boardroom, the show may have been more provocative. But the fact that all the characters in Disruption are well-educated, white, and wealthy limits its appeal.  Even the villain of the piece ends up several hundred thousand dollars richer, and yet we’re supposed to feel like he’s the loser. Not sure how many people in the 99% can identify with that.

Disruption does depict how deeply ingrained sexual stereotypes about women are—even about women who are, as Baker puts it, “at the top of the org chart.” This includes internalized misogyny. The brilliant Andrea Powell’s achievements and professionalism are thrown into question—including by her—when it is revealed that she did have a brief affair with her accuser. And the new Miracle drug? It’s not for reproductive health or breast cancer, it’s a metabolic aid for weight loss.  

Playwright Baker, who is also the founder and artistic director of 3Girls Theatre Company, explains that she began working on the play in 2016 during the months leading up to the election. She was disappointed but not surprised by the amount of “hardcore gender bias” she saw. “Women who want power—and who succeed in getting it—are seen as ‘exceptional’ in the worst possible way,” she says. “That is, they aren’t ‘normal’, and therefore they aren’t entitled to play by the same rules or be judged by the same standards as powerful men. In Disruption, I wanted to explore how this dynamic looks from the inside.” 

In Disruption, however, instead of a penetrating look, we only get a tantalizing glimpse.

Through April 29

Z Space
Tickets and more info here

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