Less a play than an extended vignette, Bull is well-acted, crisply directed, elegant to look at, and for the most part quite entertaining. If, in the end, one walks out of the theatre grouchy and unsatisfied, it’s because the play, while often fun to listen to and watch, in the end simply spins its wheels in one spot for almost an hour without moving forward.
Thomas (Joshua Bitton) and Isobel (Lesley Fera) are co-workers at an unnamed, unspecified business of some sort, waiting in an anonymous anteroom for a meeting to start. Isobel, sometimes pretending to be concerned and sometimes not bothering, does her best to rattle Thomas, commenting wickedly on his appearance and general lack of competence, and clearly breaking his composure.
Enter Tony (Kevin Daniels), another co-worker, and it soon becomes clear that the meeting is to be with the company’s big muckety-muck, that the purpose of the meeting is for the muckety-muck to fire one of the three, and that Tony and Isobel have conspired to make sure the one to go will be Thomas.
If you thought Isobel’s taunting of Thomas was mean, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Tony stands a full head taller than Thomas – much is made of the fact that Thomas is shorter than both the others – who relishes tormenting his slighter, less confident colleague. The most outlandish stunt comes when Tony opens his shirt and gets Thomas to pay obeisance to the bare chest with his face. It’s a demeaning spectacle, made all the worse by the fact that Tony has tricked Thomas into doing it – and later glibly brushes it off when Thomas complains about it to the boss.
But ah yes, the boss. Or chief. Or CEO. Or whatever Carter (Alex Whittington) is. From the moment he enters, it’s obvious Thomas is dead meat, the weak, injured calf being pushed not so gently out of the herd so as not to hold it back from its forward progress. Once Carter actually makes the pronouncement – blithely ignoring Thomas’s pleas and protestations – he leaves, followed shortly by the triumphant Tony. Isobel stays behind to harangue the dejected Thomas, excoriating him for his ineffectualness, gleefully predicting a life of deprivation and humiliation which will inevitably follow the loss of this job, showing him up to be physically unable to defend himself, and eventually leaving him cowering in a puddle, a non-drinker cradling a whiskey bottle while curled in a fetal position under a bench.
Sounds fun, huh?
Bull is a nasty little piece of work, but if you don’t mind the gorge rising in your throat, it’s pretty enjoyable for much of its 55 minutes. The opening sequences especially, between Thomas and Isobel, and the start of their scene with Tony, give rise to expectations of the sort of linguistic lunacy of early Pinter, vintage Monty Python, and the non-sequiturs of Beyond the Fringe (note: Bull is part of this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival).
The performances, under Jennifer Pollono’s direction, are all impressive. Mr. Bitton is convincing as a nebbishy nerd, while Ms Fera and Mr. Daniels are splendidly slimy. The able Mr. Whittington might appear at first a bit young to be the head of a company – but then so does Mark Zuckerberg.
The costumes by Marissa Maynes are witty and precise: the fabric may not be flannel, but every man (and woman) here is in a gray suit – and, for the men, gray shirts and ties as well; the hint of robotic conformity is noted. The exception to the all-gray color scheme: Tony and Carter wear brilliant red socks, and Isobel’s gray jacket boasts a scarlet lining. Thomas’s socks are, of course, dull gray.
As a Fringe entry, Bull performs on the set of, and using lights designed for, another show, but what they inherited works so well it would be difficult to find anything better. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s set is all appropriately minimalist silvery-gray, and Dan Weingarten’s lights do just what they need to. Perfect.
The problem here is that, despite all these good things – and the playwright’s lively and engaging use of language – the story, like a disagreeable Saturday Night Live sketch, runs the gamut from A to B. Thomas is a whiny, petulant schmuck. Isobel, Tony, and Carter are smug, smarmy, superior, and sadistic. That’s who they are when you meet them, that’s who they are when you leave. There are no surprises, no nuances. And while the interplay among them is brittle and amusing for a while, eventually it grows wearying, as there’s no movement, no changes in the characters, no progression in the story. And, for that matter, no conclusion to the play: it doesn’t end, it just… stops.
A playwright of my acquaintance, who has done very well writing for television in the last decade or so, once described why he preferred writing for the theatre. “In the theatre, you can write subtext,” he said. “In TV, there’s no subtext.”
Well, there’s no subtext in Bull either: what ya see is what ya get. Watching Bull isn’t a bad way to spend an hour – and you can bring beer to your seat – but if you’re looking for subtlety or characterization or a story that has some meaning, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Jennifer Pollono
Through June 26
Rogue Machine at The Met Theatre
1089 North Oxford Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90029
Tickets: 855-585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com