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Poor Marybeth Fritzky: She’s a resourceful young performer, and usually an appealing one, but the character she’s been saddled with in tempOdyssey defies all attempts at augury. Dan Dietz’s smart but fatally scattershot comedy centers on Genny, who’s fled her North Georgia family and a career in chicken-slaughtering for the nameless, faceless peace of temp work in a Seattle high-rise. Weird science and weirder colleagues soon intrude, though, and Genny’s past catches up with her, as pasts tend to do, and inevitably the strange “gifts” that set her apart back home wreak havoc here at IthacaTechnoSolutions, too. Like the journey it takes its name from, tempOdyssey is a tale built around a protagonist shadowed by fate, by larger forces that foul all attempts at self-reinvention. Sounds promising, no?
It is promising, and for most of the first act, it’s entertaining, too. After a clumsily portentous voice-over prologue (some nonsense about man-made black holes), Dietz sends Genny on a breakneck ride through one very explosive day: Last Day Girl, who’s supposed to be training Genny on how to cover the reception desk, turns out to be an oversexed dragon lady who delights in tormenting temps. (They’re all either Janes or Jims to her: Who, in an era of commoditized labor, can be bothered to learn the drones’ names?) Nepotism Guy, the fearsome manager whose entire résumé consists of his relationship to the CEO, appears prepared to eat the liver of anyone who so much as breaks a pencil. And then there’s the curiously cocky young man who alone seems to know how to navigate the treacherous narrows of the tempOcean, how to dodge the Scylla and Charybdis of corporate careerism and outright unemployment. The playbill calls him Dead Body Boy, and he makes his first entrance encoffined in a file drawer.
And for a while this defiantly, deliciously strange brew percolates nicely. The story clips along efficiently as Genny learns the ropes from (and begins, significantly, to warm up to) Dead Body Boy. Dietz writes snappily when he’s cracking wise (which he does often) and with a kind of handsome, expansive lyricism when he’s having a thought (which he does perhaps too often). And Christopher Gallu, who’s staged a cheekily designed production for the Studio Theatre’s Secondstage, articulates the script’s precipitous key-changes with an admirable clarity.
Misty Demory, who kicks things ferociously off with a funny, fire-breathing turn as Last Day Girl, doubles as Genny’s laconically outraged Mama in the script’s Appalachian flashbacks and as the mystically gifted Fran, a kind of über-temp who long ago imparted the secrets of workplace survival to Dead Body Boy. Her shiningly eccentric moment comes with her revelation of the Secret of the Johnson File, a make-yourself-indispensable tactic known to savvy temps in every era.
Cameron McNary rings amusing changes on a nebbishy theme as Nepotism Guy and an Atlanta scientist pontificating about lab-generated microuniverses (and the attendant risk of accidental black holes). Kevin Boggs strikes an unnervingly charismatic note (with overtones of a Sling Bladenera Billy Bob Thornton) as Genny’s daddy, architect and exploiter of the chicken holocaust that looms increasingly large in her psyche as the act progresses. And Evan Casey brings the show sparking to life every time he steps onstage: Neat, compact, and precisely physical, he’s honed Dead Body Boy’s jokes to a keen edge and punctuated them with an admirably crisp vocabulary of gesture, bodily attitude, and carefully timed take. He’s flat-out hilarious.
And then there’s a plot development, and an intermission, and the whole thing falls the hell apart. Dietz’s focus goes hither and yon; the play staggers about like a drunkard philosopher, contemplating childhood trauma, sexual assault, and the megalomania common to religious fundamentalists, genius scientists, and terrorists. The script’s unearned contempt for Genny’s Appalachian origins curdles too often into an outright sneer (though there is a flash of real poetry in a sequence involving a sun arrested in its setting by the pointed tip of a Georgia pine).
And while there’s plenty to admire about Dietz’s ambition—he’s working here to fuse sitcom situations, epic themes, and cosmic concerns into a play designed to make you laugh a lot and think a little, too—the whole isn’t nearly the sum of its parts. By the time Dietz allows tempOdyssey’s climactic confrontation to deflate into a half-hopeful step back from the precipice of depression and destruction, the only optimism the audience is likely to care much about is the kind sold at the lobby bar.