Sunday, July 08, 2007

Professional Skepticism

A bottom-feeder CPA successfully uses the arrogance and negligence of his peers against them in James Rasheed's dog-eat-dog drama, Professional Skepticism. While the material is innately dry, the desperation-driven, twisty plot points, stellar cast, and fantastic set design make this production a worth-see.

Clockwise: Steve French, Britney Burgess and Matthew J. Nichols

in Professional Skepticism. Photo by Jonathan Slaff


Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

While Morrissey's monster was spawned in November, James Rasheed's monster in Professional Skepticism took all of 25 days in August to be born. Of course said monster, CPA rookie Paul (wonderful anti-villain Matthew J. Nichols), needs more than a little prodding to become a ghoul. He needs to be bitch-slapped, goaded, and ridiculed by associates Leo (Steve French), golden boy Greg (Wesley Thornton) and vampy Margaret (Britney Burgess) before growing fangs and stomping hooves.

Mousy, penny-pinching, meticulous and clingy, Paul is pegged immediately as the quintessential, if sympathetic jerk. As Paul, Nichols writhes in embarrassment, afflicted professionally by Leo, emotionally by Greg, and romantically by Margaret. As his reduction is carefully crafted by Rasheed, it becomes easy to predict his metamorphosis from sniveling to cunning, sheepish to bold. Yet, unlike his counterparts, Paul elevates the competition by never using artifice to accomplish their doom. Instead, he uses the same attributes that they lord over him against them: unfounded conceit and carelessness. It is a beautiful formula, one where he merely exposes their faults rather than invent them. Nichols does marginal slapstick with this role, but he uses the levity well. A careful dollop of humor smeared over his master plan to ruin his competitors' careers is just the right amount to allow him to be the fine line between hero and villain.

The eclectic soundtrack by Andrew Papadeas, although not a part of the show that is referenced in dialogue, is sometimes used by Paul as a means to amuse and extend his position as an alright guy. He dances and prances as he plans. Unfortunately, these instances seem to violate the writer-actor code of creative license.

Rasheed spins an intriguing web of audits and frauds from what originally appears to be an ordinary yarn of he-saids and she- saids. As soon as the plot comes into fruition, much can be forgiven for the bland, life-as-an-accountant backdrop. Credit is due to the strength of Kareem Fahmy's direction for extracting the whole spectrum of acting from the cast, from indifference to rage.

Although the cast is strong across the board, Steve French is especially marvelous as the ring-jerk Leo, concurrently revolting and likable. A classist and a racist, one cannot help but anticipate his next insulting jab, particularly since he delivers them with a booming tone that you can't take completely seriously. He gets into character before the play's inception, demonstrating emotional preparation while sifting through documents at his over-sized desk. Or, perhaps it's a device to create the illusion of readiness. Either way, it works.

The set design by Andrew Lu is brilliant in the small space allotted by the Abingdon Theater, both cost and space effective. The over-sized desk denotes the importance of their profession, as does the many documents that cascade from a large folder on the ceiling unto the back wall. Pages are ripped from a large calendar that suspends from the ceiling as a deadline for an audit completion in August creeps close. Lu creates visual frenzy and desperation in a world often associated with order. It is a refreshing, seldom seen perspective.

All is fair in the pursuit of getting ahead, right? Not here. Partially based on Rasheed's past experience as a CPA, Professional Skepticism is an insightful look at the consequences of too much ambition and not enough ethics. Said to be a commentary on contemporary American life, the ambition almost exists as a separate character, whispering in everyone's ear, save Margaret, like a permissible Satan. Apart from a few quips about his undesirability, Margaret is a passive agent in Paul's monstrosity, and perhaps only a casualty by default. It is ironic that all the male characters claim a subdivision of the Christian faith, but yet most certainly behave in an adverse manner to its teachings. Turn the other cheek and the first shall be last, and the last first don't live here. But, as Paul says, he knows how to separate his professional life from his personal life, even if Rasheed's point of view may be that not all ties should be severed. To its own detriment, there are no victors in this play, but it is more dramedy than tragedy. Whether that mimics reality or not does not deflect from the fact that such endings can be perceived as unsatisfying. Regardless of your position on the ending, the sum of everything that precedes it hits the spot.


Through July 15th. Abingdon Theatre: 312 West 36th Street, NY NY 10018. $15-18 Tickets: 212-868-4444.