Dallas — On a soulless, sleek round set, an archetypical schlub, Thomas (Ian Ferguson), fidgets nervously in an ill-fitting suit. By the time the hot, business be-suited witch-with-a-B. Isobel (Natalie Young), enters and stares him down, we know all there is to know about Bull by Mike Bartlett. Director Christie Vela takes this flat play and smooths out the peaks for Second Thought Theatre’s contribution to the Elevator Project at the AT&T Preforming Arts Center’s Wyly Theatre, in the Sixth Floor Studio.
Alex Ross enters as Tony, the male equivalent to Young’s Isobel. They’re a sort of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Evil. Both are built for the task at hand: bullying. They’ve got beauty, brains and no soul. Sure, it’s the dog-eat-dog world of big business. (That’s the other echo of the title: the bull market.) But the assault is so relentless that the audience begins to feel just as victimized. When the elevator was slow to come after the show, I thought there would be a panic.
Essential to this torment is top-notch acting. It’s a toss-up between the torturers, Ross and Young, for performance of the year (so far). They both exhibit the exquisite stillness of the predator. When they move it is in beautiful cooperation. This isn’t hunting. It’s more like playing with their prey, but without joy or satisfaction. The only distinction that makes Young the more disturbing of the duo is the perfect subversion of any feminine expectation. Lady Macbeth could learn a thing or two.
If it seems like there is no plot, it’s because what movement there might have been has been erased at the outset. Director Vela allows Ferguson to play wounded from the first moments. The information that these three have been summoned to a meeting with the big boss (A lionlike Jeremy Schwartz, truly king of this jungle) where one will be let go is superfluous. Ferguson’s Thomas makes it a foregone conclusion and that tempers any investment the audience is willing to extend. Who wants to back the losing team?
But maybe that’s the point. Late in the hourlong, intermissionless play (and in the program) the Darwinian explanation of survival of the fittest is offered. Maybe this culling is imperative for the health of the herd. Here it is business, but everyone has been in a group with members who pull less than their weight. A little nip and tuck is tempting, but that rationale would sit us all in the sociopath section. According to Barlett, there is no other way.
The way Second Thought has set the table, you’ll be eating the bitter pill with a knife and fork.
There’re no spoons because there’s no sugar to help this medicine go down.