By James V. Ruocco
What is a lexicographer?
Making its "world premiere" debut at the immersive, intimate Playhouse on Park venue, the production itself comes to the stage with a premise, intelligence and sense of discovery that's mixed with cleverly couched flashes of joy, individuality, chutzpah and collaborative power.
As theatre, "Webster's Bitch" is talky and clever.
It is engagingly pitched and self-assured.
It is fierce and sharp-tongued.
It is spontaneous and witty.
It hits hard.
It digs deep.
It gets you thinking.
It fucks with your senses.
It is also the perfect fit for Playhouse in Park amidst a stellar season of productions that included Paula Vogel's "Indecent" and "Fences" by August Wilson.
As playwright, Bircher creates a showcase of bold emotions, black comedy and informational dramatics that are egged on by arguments, stances, elements, skewering, causes and character turns that drive "Webster's Bitch" forward, anchored by meaty dialogue, savvy situations and surprise twists that you didn't see coming.
There's also a balance and heartbeat to her writing, particularly in the way she creates characters, festers their high and low points, flatters them and knocks them down and evokes words and thoughts that define who they are, what they are and how they fit into the puzzle and mind games of her creation.
Whatever the scene or focal point, Bircher knows exactly what she wants and runs with it. It is that sort of intuition that makes "Webster's Bitch" so attractive, observational and juicy. The fact that you never quite know which way the tide will turn also heightens the appeal of the playwright's narrative.
Staging "Webster's Bitch" at Playhouse on Park, director Vanessa Morosco delivers a masterful piece of storytelling infused with the truths, vision, stance and pivotal turns reflected in Bircher's complex playtext. Working against the backdrop of Johann Fitzpatrick's atmospheric, lived-in office setting, she creates an evolving world of upstart and determination, offset by a seamless energy and effectiveness that gives the play a front-page realness, mindset and message-oriented effectiveness.
An actress herself, Morosco guides her five-member cast through a swirling mix of emotions and conversations, grounded and implemented with deft, seamless staging and blocking maneuvers that are naturally specific to their characters, the story, their evolvement in the progression of her telling and the heart and soul of the piece. Here, a reaction, an expression, a tilt of the head or the movement of a prop, a paper or a folder is just as important as a line of dialogue, a joke, a four-letter-word or a heated debate or a change of direction in the narrative.
The always magnificent Veanne Cox - "Company," "Murder on the Orient Express," "Private Lives," "Cinderella," "La Cage aux Folles" - gives the performance of the season as Joyce, the workplace "bitch" of the show's title (no spoilers, here) whose chain of command, uptightness and quest for power not only unleashes a very dangerous, structured and educated women, but prompts an immediate actor-audience vibe the moment she appears on stage.
She's driven. She's fiery. She's determined. She's angry. She's vulnerable. She's shrewd. She's devious. Mess with her and she'll eat you for dinner.
Here, in "Webster's Bitch," Cox draws you into her story and that of those around her with a polished, natural display of confidence, habitation and collision that fascinates and echoes with fire and precision, pungency and bravado and magisterial edge and toughness. Watching her perform, one could only imagine the onstage drama that would erupt if she should ever tackle the lead role of Martha (she should) in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Mixing illusion and reality to explosive proportions, Cox would not only master the range of emotions of that very iconic character, but vividly express, as she does here, the voice, body language and persona of that particular role as well.
As Gwen, the young, intuitive woman dedicated to keeping the dictionary's lexicography timely and relevant, Mia Wurgrat totally captivates while delivering a natural, nuanced performance. In the showy role of Gwen's sister Ellie, Isabel Monk Cade absolutely shines, hitting every comedic and dramatic cue with a free-flowing zest and enthusiasm that is key to the enjoyment of this very powerful and intense world premiere play.