Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Fundamentals
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Alan Wilder, Alana Arenas, and Audrey Francis
Photo by Michael Brosilow
For so many people around the world, "Business," has all the markings of fundamentalism, defined as "strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline. The religion of "Business" has as its basic principle the profit motive: all the business's activity must be somehow serving the pursuit of profit. Compliance with governmental laws and regulations? Cheaper than not complying, and damaging to the brand if violations are found and publicized. Charitable activity? Only if it builds goodwill toward to the business among key customer groups.

Erika Sheffer's new play, commissioned by Steppenwolf and in its world premiere production, never directly makes that comparison, but perhaps the title is a double entendre and a hint. The Fundamentals concerns Millie Diaz (Alana Arenas), an immigrant housekeeper in a New York boutique hotel that is part of a national chain. (The "W" hotels come to mind, but that's not directly stated). It's a chain large enough to have some pretty slick employee training seminars, and the play opens with a spot-on mock multimedia presentation, designed by Stephan Mazurek, in which the fundamentals of the this particular hospitality chain's operations are defined for the employees. These fundamentals are things like listening and empathy, caring, spontaneity—qualities that can lead the employee to satisfy the guests' needs. Sounds a little humanitarian, no? Yes, but the ultimate goal is to bring the guest back for repeat visits.

Millie, though, was originally attracted to the hospitality business because, as she explains in a scene late in the play, her job is solving people's problems, meeting their needs, and ultimately making them happy. She's well liked and respected by management for those qualities, but only to a point. The stiff hotel manager Eliza (Audrey Francis), whose attempts at friendliness are obviously inauthentic, worries that she's too caring. Eliza fears Millie wouldn't be able to make tough decisions concerning her co-workers if she were placed in the managerial position she desires, particularly decisions regarding her husband Lorenzo (Armando Riesco), an engineer at the hotel.

The conflict between Millie's concern for people and the company's expectation of adherence to hard-nosed management principles is at the heart of this play. Millie has bought into another tenet of the religion of business—that it provides upward mobility for those who have talent and work hard. Millie has both those qualities and believes she merits a promotion that would bring more sorely needed income to their family (she and Lorenzo have an offstage young daughter). After learning of a serious indiscretion by an employee, she reports him to Eliza as proof she has the objectivity needed for management. Eventually, that's not enough—another human sacrifice is needed to keep Millie in the running for the promotion. Sheffer successfully keeps us guessing from there on with a number of smart plot twists that won't be revealed here.

Director Yasen Peyankov's production brings us into the "backstage" world of this trendy hotel with authentic performances from his cast and hyper-realistic production design. All the action takes place in the basement office of the hotel's housekeeping department, perfectly created by scenic designer Collette Pollard. A wood-paneled elevator connecting this plain-to-dingy office is the only suggestion of the elegant hotel above this office. The stage is lit with the sort of harsh fluorescent lighting one would find in such a room. Natasha Dukich's costumes include accurate-looking uniforms for the staff, plain workday wear for the housekeeping manager Abe (Alan Wilder), inexpensive casual wear for co-worker and aspiring actress Stellan (Caroline Neff), and upscale business attire for Eliza.

Arenas brings a strong sense of humanity along with a feeling of weariness to Millie, who nearing age 30 feels she has to make changes in her life soon if change is ever going to happen. Arenas could perhaps show a bit more of the urgency that motivates Millie's actions, but she delivers a compelling and most watchable central performance. As husband Lorenzo, Armando Riesco has a rough-hewn working class edge that instantly brings us into the character. It's a little harder to picture these two as a couple, but the script tells us the two married young and suggests they are a mismatch.

The three other performances couldn't be more perfect. Francis is a gem as Eliza—falsely sweet when she's trying to establish rapport with the employees, an automaton of a manager when she feels she has to be "businesslike" and yet showing a humanity of sorts in a key scene late in the play. Alan Wilder is the nebbish 60-year-old housekeeping manager who has been at the hotel for years, managing to get along without making waves or getting ahead. As Stellan, Caroline Neff creates a believable and nuanced character in her relatively few scenes on stage.

With a run time of 2:10 including an intermission, Peyankov's pacing and Sheffer's script do seem to flag at moments, but it's all in the service of a realistic style and I believed every minute of both the script and performances.

Sheffer concisely explores a theme of viewing work as service and a means of sustenance, versus an activity devoted to the blind pursuit of profit—a cooperative venture requiring trust and kindness between managers, employees and customer rather than some sort of hierarchical cast system. Sheffer says she once worked in a hotel like the one in the play, but the choice of industry is fortuitous even if it is biographical. As the fictional training session explains, the very nature of their business is service to others. Is the heart of it connection to others? It is to Millie, but not to Eliza, who explains in the powerful scene mentioned above that she finds it easier to view guests as simply part of her job—strangers to be served but not to be really connected to.

The popularity of workplace dramas has been evident for a long time, particularly as a staple of TV sitcoms. The Fundamentals works on that level, but it delivers more—a thoughtful exploration of the assumptions and principles of our society today. It explores issues of social and economic mobility and the potential or limits of a profit-driven free economy to provide a sustainable and equitable society.

The Fundamentals will play the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, through December 23, 2016. For more information or tickets, visit or call 312-335-1650.

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