Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 1997
The cast of characters in Richard Dresser’s 1995 play, “Below the Belt” lists three names, each described simply as “a man.” That says it all.
“This play is about the experience of being a man. I didn’t want to place any further limitations on it,” explains the 45 year-old Los Angeles-based playwright, whose piece premiered at the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville, was generally well-received Off-Broadway last spring, and now airs at the Old Globe (May 10-June 15).
“It’s about the hierarchical way men work together,” Dresser continues. “These three guys are at slightly different places on the food chain. Relative standing is the absolute important thing. There’s a lot of tension in the human desire to connect with each other. But every time they reveal something of themselves, it’s seen as a sign of weakness… Women are more reasonable; they’d acknowledge their differences and talk it out. The play would be over in five minutes!”
The setting is “an industrial compound in a distant land,” where the river glows, paranoia abounds, and meaningless discourse is the norm. Outside, “yellow eyes” glare from “mysterious animals.”
The employees are “checkers,” but the new guy can’t find out what the product is. Instead, he’s bombarded with work-maxims:
“Blunder on a grand scale — the surest means of advancement in the company.”
“I’ll push you overboard before I let you rock the boat.”
When he gamely says, “You have tyrannized me and sought to make every moment of my life a bitter taste of hell,” the calm reply is, “I’m your boss; it’s expected.”
Cartoon aficionados will be reminded of Dilbert, but Dresser isn’t familiar with Scott Adams’ sly workplace strip. He says all his material came from his own employment experiences. The play is funny, in a cynical kind of way, but Dresser doesn’t think so.
“It all depends whether you consider human behavior and all its horrors cynical… I think there’s a lot of hope in the play. But maybe I’m the only one who feels that way…
“My plays are much trickier than they appear to be. You have to play them absolutely truthfully. You could make them heavy-handed or try to do them as comedy. Either choice is equally excruciating.
“I’ve had several long talks with [Globe director] Andrew Traister, and we’re very much in synch. I think it’ll be a terrific production. And Robert Foxworth [who plays the more seasoned employee], is a wonderful actor.”
Dresser, a Massachusetts native and graduate of Brown University, got a late start at writing. At first, he held odd jobs, like security guard and factory worker, before becoming a writer of plays (“Alone at the Beach” and “Gunshy” also premiered at the Humana Festival) and TV shows (such as “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd”).
When he was operating a machine that molded white plastic thingamajigs, he naively asked the foreman, ‘What am I making?’ He was told, “Look, don’t be a wiseguy.” This is the stuff plays are made on.
“This world of paranoia and one-upsmanship,” rejoins Dresser, “shifting loyalties and ritualistic, coded behaviors that mean something other than they appear… A friend of mine said, ‘This is the best play about Hollywood I’ve ever read!'”
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.