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Rob Ackerman's acidly funny "Tabletop" is spot-on about the making of a TV commercial

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Picture imperfect: Rob Bartlett and Elizabeth Hanly Rice in Tabletop.  

Two Davids, Story and Mamet, have popularized the workplace play, a genre to which Rob Ackerman now contributes his highly estimable Tabletop. The title refers to TV commercials that are usually shot on a tabletop. The author is a practicing property master, and even if he is not yet a master dramatist, his observation, hearing, and orchestration are masterly enough.

We are in the photographic studio of Marcus Gordon, a slipping leader in the field, nervous perfectionist, slave driver wielding the foul-mouthed insult like a bullwhip. His assistant director, Andrea, tries to nudge him toward innovation; only slightly less angular than her clipboard, she is a lover of fast cars and promoter of fast work. Jeffrey, the prop master, is a needling, sarcastic fellow, not above claiming another's ideas as his own. Dave, the grip, is a soft-spoken homosexual trying to stay closeted but firm when work threatens to interfere with his love life. Oscar, the gaffer, is a jovial chap who dreams of owning a hardware store. Ron, the imaginative but often awkward gofer, clearly the author's alter ego, is the butt of the others' disapproval ("You really think about things more than you ought to") yet also the object of their envy.

After hearing about a morning wasted on failed shots, we witness the escalating frustrations of an afternoon of reshoots that multiply like rabbits. Needed, for a product called Fruit Freeze, is a "pour shot," capturing a few seconds of "pouring thick pink liquid into a perfect plastic cup atop a carefully arranged pile of fresh fruit." This is to be followed by a "heroic beauty shot" of the swirl-topped drink slowly rotating upward before the camera. Something always goes wrong: An apple gets bruised, that swirl collapses, tempers fray. Ron is fired and rehired as chaos in a small studio encapsulates some of life's fiercest and funniest frustrations.

A crack of contradiction runs through the proceedings. "If something is actually good for you, it doesn't get a television commercial," we hear. Or, as Marcus sums up: "You're sitting at home watching the idiot box, and you see some pink shit in a cup. It looks good. You want to buy some. That's all that matters." Yet the same Marcus also proclaims, "The shows are a lie. The commercials are the truth." How are these pinned-together, propped-up, spritzed fruits the truth, save in the sense that money-making is what TV is about? Ron gets into trouble for thinking his work art rather than craft.

But craft or art, it elicits, besides nastily funny sniping, also an underlying camaraderie. That Ackerman goes off on seeming tangents about private lives seems to me consistent with evoking the workplace -- this is, in fact, a production of the Working Theatre dedicated to such plays. And what a workplace Dean Taucher, who has been active in real commercials with Ackerman, has conjured up! This could easily be a functioning studio with everything down to the last detail not only visible but also artfully deployed into a complex stage image, as lovingly lighted by Jack Mehler as if it were a cup of Fruit Freeze. Ilona Somogyi's costumes are no less spot-on.

Wrong only is the happy ending, when the underdog, with the middle dogs united behind him, brings the top dog to his knees, to henceforth not just bark out orders but also say "please." This is both unrealistic and also, in leaving us with a euphoric concluding image, ennobles the specious cause the Marcus Gordon studio subserves.

Under Connie Grappo's unerring direction, six terrific actors combine into an ensemble perhaps even greater than its parts. I salute Rob Bartlett, Harvy Blanks, Jack Koenig, Dean Nolen, Elizabeth Hanly Rice, and Jeremy Webb with equal enthusiasm, and regret only the show's scheduled closing by the end of this week. Is there no producer smart enough to transfer it and cash in on a work so clearly accomplished and commercial?


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