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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Gronholm Method
By Jon Magaril
The production, directed by BT McNicholl, keeps things things light by leaning on wacky sound effects and kooky hats. They grease the proceedings to make sure everything goes down easy. The broad humor is polished and well performed, but it narrows the effect.
Even so, Catalan playwright Jordi Galceran has ways of making you think. He makes a rollicking thriller out of the lengths to which job seekers will go to get hired. The proceedings ask the candidates, and the audience, to consider whether empathy is a help or hindrance in making major business decisions.
The so-called “Gronholm” approach is based on the guiding principle that its set of exercises reveal more about a candidate's true personality than a typical interview. All are placed together in a room that's under surveillance. Every exchange is tinged with oneupmanship. An offer of a tic-tac, for instance, seems simultaneously sociable and sociopathic.
One by one, each receives a card from a mysterious drawer that periodically pops open with a comical swoosh sound. The card describes a task for either the applicant alone or the entire group. The first test is to guess which of them is a mole from the firm's human resources department.
The participants try to suss out whether the high powered company, Burnham & Burnham, is looking for an alpha dog or team player. The games grow intensely personal. The job seekers grapple with whether to kow-tow to the increasingly invasive demands. Refusing means they forfeit their shot at the executive position. It's a mix of A Chorus Line's real-time job competition with the more avant-garde theatrics of Pinter's The Dumb Waiter and Sartre's No Exit.
Plot twists pile up as the one-act revs to its climax. The clever turns thrill by surprise. Then they dazzle, when one realizes all preceding events jibe with each new revelation.
Galceran provokes and plays fair. The dialogue, well translated by Anne Garcia-Romero and off-Broadway playwright Mark St. Germain (the recent long-running Freud's Last Session off-Broadway and latest hit in the making, flows naturally. References to recent economic conditions have been updated to include Occupation Wall Street. The subject matter couldn't be more timely. Yet, the entertaining production avoids hitting any of its points too incisively.
There's something homey about the whole affair. The decor, designed by Brian Webb, seems to have been in place for decades. It evokes a company that's behind the times, rather than a cutting edge cut-throat business. For most of the running time, the only sense of the decision-makers comes from the cutely comical sound of the drawer, which defuses the tension.
Matthew Warchus' recent production of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, which offers a template for balancing accessible entertainment and go-for-broke emotion, featured a set by Mark Thompson that made manifest the larger themes of the play. A similar approach would do wonders here.
It would also help if the performances allowed for greater identification. Admittedly, the roles are a bit stock. This is the case even in the more serious Spanish film adaptation, El Metodo, with a screenplay by Galceran.
Jonathan Cake's Frank is a shark out of a Mamet play. Stephen Spinella's Rick is the comic relief dweeb. Lesli Margherita's Melanie, the lone woman, tries to balance work and family obligations. Graham Hamilton's youthful Carl is a bit wet behind the ears. Fortunately the Tony Award-winning Spinella and Olivier Award-winning Margherita find some opportunities for more subtle shading.
McNicholl has admirably coaxed all the actors to work within the same theatrical frequency. All but Cake tantalizingly display “tells.” They exhibit traits that work within the slightly heightened style of the piece but get exposed as having been been put-on to cover a secret. Only Spinella creates a fully integrated character, whose every choice adds a color to a multi-faceted personality. Some of the others merely trade in one persona for another.
The hunky Cake seems miscast. The Brit's American accent is great, but he doesn't land as a scrappy outer-borough New York City kid made good. His role embodies the central question of the play: does a top level executive think only of the bottom line? Or should he tap into more humane resources? The performance never allows us to believe he could connect even if he wanted to. The production's greatest potential for suspense has been capped. Cake remains resolutely single-layer. That layer's tasty though.
The same holds true for the production. The potential for harder-hitting emotional or social impact has been ignored, perhaps out of a sense of what the audience will buy. Nonetheless, if you want a brain-teasing play that tickles your funny bone, this production of The Gronholm Method gets the job done.