- The Washington Times - Friday, October 8, 2004

You think your job is crazy? Consider the meticulous madness of denizens of the “tabletop” ad biz, those technicians who toil to make whipped cream look like clouds surrounding Mount Olympus or scoops of ice cream as delecttable as a Playmate of the Month.

As with centerfolds and silicone, it is a matter of camera trickery and fakery, with shaving cream standing in for the caffeinated peaks of a Dunkin’ Donuts cappuccino and mashed potatoes serving as a double dip of Edy’s Grand Light. Rob Ackerman’s fitfully funny play “Tabletop” portrays this insular world with hectic, almost bruising comedy.

The chief joke in “Tabletop” involves a group of talented people nearly losing their minds and their jobs over a few seconds of footage of a fruit smoothie. You would think it was David Lean making “Lawrence of Arabia” from the angst and machinations the crew goes through for a glistening shot of a cup filled with juice and crushed ice.

“It is the single most eloquent statement of our time,” says gung-ho neophyte studio manager Ron (Aubrey Deeker) of the 30-second spot. Given all the hoopla surrounding the ads for Super Bowl Sunday, Ron may have a point. Perhaps ads are the ultimate art form for our short-attention-span culture, truisms that can be digested easily in far less than a minute.

You might not want to go as far as director Marcus Gordon (Jerry Whiddon), who, in one of his many profanity-laden diatribes, suggests that TV shows are all lies and that it is only in ads that we can mine the truth. But if “Tabletop” is about anything, it is hype, the idea that more is more and there is no such thing as too much obsessing over the most minuscule details.

If ever a group of people needed Xanax pumped into their water coolers, it is the staff of Marcus Gordon’s Manhattan production studio. Egotistical Marcus screams incessantly about the group’s incompetence, using his producer, Andrea (Lee Mikeska Gardner), as a whipping post; in turn, she piles abuse on her underlings. Assistant cameraman Dave (Todd Scofield) is so beaten down, he can’t even be himself — a homosexual man.

On the other hand, Oscar (Craig Wallace), a gaffer and grip, scrambles to put together a deal to buy a general store in New England. Property master Jeffrey (David Marks) floats along on a cloud of indifference, just doing his job — that is, when he isn’t trying to undermine Ron’s efforts to make things freshly creative.

For all the specific nastiness of the ad game, “Tabletop” could be any cautionary tale about the perils of losing your soul to showbiz. “All About Eve,” “The Stunt Man” and “The Player” did it better — and were more consistently entertaining. Mr. Ackerman’s play does give us a glimpse into a world to which most of us are not privy, but the play’s one-note extremism wears you out after a while. Even the rhythms become predictable — hissy fit, recovery, hissy fit, recovery.

Also, Mr. Ackerman tries to inject some seriousness into what is essentially an absurd farce. Yet it is like a Lifetime message movie suddenly appearing in the middle of “Trading Spouses” when “Tabletop” queasily dabbles in such topics as race and gay pride, as well as a poetic but completely out-of-place monologue about unbuttoning your lover’s clothing.

“Tabletop” is salvaged by savage performances from the cast and director Jane Beard’s adeptness at maintaining a frenetic, insane pace. Mr. Deeker is a raw-nerved bundle of ideas and neuroses as the hilariously overthinking Ron, and Mr. Marks proves an excellent foil with his laconic, laid-back Jeffrey.

Miss Gardner’s Andrea is a prickly, scarily keyed-up boss from hell, topped only by Mr. Whiddon’s portrayal of the crisis-addicted Marcus.

For a play lambasting our culture’s preference for image over substance, “Tabletop” comes off as oddly shallow, as pea-brained as the people and the industry it portrays.


WHAT: “Tabletop” by Rob Ackerman

WHERE: Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 31.

TICKETS: $25 to $35


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