The backdrop for Erika Sheffer’s insightful if somewhat overly contrived play, “The Fundamentals” — now in its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre — is the “hospitality industry,” at least as it exists in the lower depths of a boutique hotel in Manhattan that caters to the whims of guests who believe their every need must be met.
Sheffer clearly views the term “hospitality industry” as repellant corporate cant (and the ultimate contradiction in terms), and she even supplies the copy for several spot-on mock videos used by the hotel’s parent chain for promotional advertising and training session purposes. But her real concern is the upstairs-downstairs and women versus women tensions among the hotel’s employees — one in upper management, but others in positions considered far lower in status.
When: Through Dec. 31
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20 – $89
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission
In fact, we only hear about the problem guests indirectly (one, allergic to the feathers in comforters, demands the purchase of a blanket, while another requires almond milk in the minibar). But beyond that, Sheffer is primarily concerned with shining a merciless fluorescent light on the surveillance-heavy basement area where the hotel’s housekeepers load their carts and sort through lost-and-found bins, and where quick fixes (of plumbing or other annoyances) are phoned in to the janitor/engineer.
Upstairs, in the corporate echelon of this sharply acted five-character play that has been tightly directed by Yasen Peyankov is the hard-edged, ultra-chic Eliza (Audrey Francis), who oversees operations in the hotel, including hiring, firing and promotions.
Downstairs you will find Millie (Alana Arenas), a 26-year-old woman from a Caribbean immigrant family, who works as the manager of housekeeping and was recently passed over when she applied for the more glamorous Front Desk job. The post went to newcomer Stellan (Caroline Neff), an aspiring actress who just happens to be white, and shrewdly manipulative.
Millie is locked in a bad relationship with Lorenzo (Armando Riesco), the feckless hotel engineer with a gambling problem who is the father of their grade-school daughter. We learn that it was her pregnancy years earlier that resulted in her having to give up a college scholarship (she should have given up Lorenzo instead). Millie’s direct boss is Abe (Alan Wilder), a lonely, decent, unmarried 60-year-old man who has worked the same job for 30 years, has an aging mother in a nursing home, and has few aspirations beyond surviving day-to-day in a place that provides comfort and security.
All in all, they form a perfect cross-section of New York’s work force, most of whom are just trying to keep their heads above water. It is when they try to improve their lot that things can go very, very wrong. And so they do here as Millie decides to win favor with Eliza by ratting on an upstairs employee she learns has been supplying prostitutes to guests, as Lorenzo is known to be pilfering laptops, and as Abe pockets some toiletries and tampons for a friend. In the meantime, Eliza is under considerable pressure herself as a delegation of corporate executives has descended on the hotel to make sure it is meeting the highest standards.
When push comes to shove, Millie, an essentially decent person who is suddenly desperate to succeed, makes the decision to play the game as she has observed it. And to do so she sells her soul — suddenly betraying people who, in the past, she has protected and been protected by. She also makes a few very serious errors of her own along the way.
Sheffer seems to believe that everyone ultimately is for sale on some level, and that if you fail to “make the deal” someone else will take your place. A cynical world view, to be sure, but one that is difficult to deny, though the final scene of “The Fundamentals,” craftily played by Arenas, suggests such victories exact a steep price — filling the wallet but hollowing out the conscience.
While many of the situations in the play fall far too neatly into place, Sheffer is a first-rate satirist and a fine observer of character and milieu.
And the performances are all well-etched, with Arenas suggesting what happens when dreams are denied for too long; Francis showing us a woman whose veneer allows for few cracks; Wilder capturing the fragile, “keep your head down” mentality so familiar to those terrified of losing their job; Riesco perfectly embodying the petty criminal Peter Pan mentality; and Neff suggesting a young woman whose real talent is for treachery.
By the way, did you enjoy your stay?