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Casey (Tyson Baker) would like to go on strike but hasn't a clue how to do it. Alex (Sarah Danielle Young) is tired of being a "den mother for the world's tiniest frat house" but doesn't make enough money to afford living on her own. Cindy (Anne Louise Brings) wants to do a good job, but the customers keep getting in her way. Ruth (April Fossen) and Ed (Joe Crnich) have master's degrees, but they're still plugging away at demeaning, low-wage, no-benefits jobs.
These five unlikely comrades are the characters in Rob Tennant's black comedy "Booksmart," making its world premiere at Plan-B Theatre Company in an uneven production that generates genuinely funny moments but eventually runs out of momentum.
It is shortly before Christmas, and life is frantic for the disgruntled employees of Booksmart, a giant retail bookstore. Its name encapsulates the tension at the heart of this dark comedy. These characters are all educated people and much too smart to be stuck in their dead-end jobs at a merchandise mart owned by a megacorporation, but the promise of the American dream has betrayed them. An education used to open doors to opportunity, but many of those doors now seem to be slamming shut. As Casey sums up, "It's ridiculous that we do a job that doesn't allow us to live a decent life."
Casey is the play's chief spokesman, but talking about his frustration is as far as he can get. "I'm still figuring out what's next. I have no idea what I'm doing," he admits. He enlists Alex, who is practical and copes with the realities of the job better than anyone else, to help mobilize his strike. Cindy, who is obsessed with "The Hunger Games" and Comic Con, and Ruth, who was once a social activist and taught in college as an adjunct "that's Latin for 'without benefits,' " she jokes struggle to deal with difficult customers on the phone. And Ed, an aging hippie who likes to chill out, is appalled to discover that Christmas may actually be a pagan feast centered on the solstice.
Tennant has interesting characters here, but basically they all have the same ax to grind, and consequently "Booksmart" starts repeating itself and doesn't know where to go. There are some entertaining fantasy sequences along the way where Casey, Cindy and Ruth act out their daydreams, but they don't provide a new sense of direction.
The ensemble cast evolves a comfortable camaraderie, and the performances Baker's well-meaning, but lackadaisical, Casey; Young's sensible, grounded Alex; Brings' impressionable, eager-to-please Cindy; Fossen's articulate earth-mother Ruth; and Crnich's easy-going, affable Ed flesh out and individualize the underdeveloped characters. Jerry Rapier's focused direction keeps everyone on the same page.
Randy Rasmussen's sleazy, rundown employee breakroom set is appropriately claustrophobic, and Jesse Portillo's adaptable lighting modulates subtly for the fantasy sequences. Aaron Swenson's colorful costumes are quirky and eclectic, and Cheryl Ann Cluff's sound design features increasingly frantic voiceover announcements for more cash-register help and a barrage of Christmas music every time the breakroom door opens.
"Booksmart" makes a clever onslaught on the frustration and sense of futility that result when overqualified people have to take low-end jobs, but it needs more depth and variety to keep its audience consistently engaged. Kudos, however, to Plan-B and the David Ross Fetzer Foundation for allowing Tennant's voice and that of more local playwrights to be heard.
Plan-B Theatre Company's "Booksmart" contains genuinely comic insights about the current economic climate, but the lively performances of a well-matched cast cannot totally compensate for its underdevelopment.
When • Reviewed Dec. 2; plays Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., through Dec. 13; additional performance Dec. 13 at 5:30 p.m.
Where • Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 West Broadway, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20, $10 for students; 801-355-ARTS or planbtheatre.org
Running time • 70 minutes (no intermission)