The Idea Man at the Elephant Theatre Company in Los Angeles

By Richard Adams
18 May 2009

The Idea ManWritten by Kevin King, directed by David Fofi, and produced by Lindsay Allbaugh, at the Elephant Theatre Company, Los Angeles. It runs through June 2009.

Kevin King’s The Idea Man, now receiving its world premiere with the Elephant Theatre Company in Hollywood, California, leaps exuberantly into the gulf between labor and management. By turns raucous, raunchy, subtle and sly, this very smart “dramedy” has much more on its mind than observing the culture clashes of the blue-chip and blue-collar classes. Obliquely subversive, this play pillories the smug exploitation of workers by their corporate bosses. Yet, while there’s never any mistaking where the play’s class sympathies lie, the tribalism of the trade union members portrayed here also gets its fair share of slaps and snaps.

Al (James Pippi), a skilled toolmaker, is a guy with self-described “anger issues.” He’s an irrepressible skirt-chasing, beer-drinking, smart-mouthed know-it-all, father of six kids by two wives and an interim girlfriend. His current wife, Francine, played with comic dead-pan brilliance by Kerry Carney, is every bit Al’s match. Al is popular among his co-workers and sufficiently passionate about their interests that he’s been elected their union rep. Al is also a mechanical savant with a headful of ideas, one of which he drops in the suggestion box.

Al’s rough sketch of how to modify the machine he operates could double productivity and save the company tens of millions. At one point, Al admits that the only reason he waited a year to present the idea was that he couldn’t decide which he hated more: the machine or the company. His reward? A small plaque with his named engraved, a warm personal thank you from Jim Simmons (David Franco), the plant’s senior VP, and a check for a hundred bucks.

Frank (Robert Foster), the consummate white-collar resident engineer who originally designed the machine, instantly spots the simple brilliance in Al’s idea. And its value. The hundred dollar pay-off offends his sense of fairness. Simmons finds nothing troublesome at all in reaping the benefits of Al’s design. In Simmons’s value-system, exploiting resources, including human resources, to profit the company is “what we do.”

But there’s a problem. Al has left out a critical detail of his modification. Frank has the weekend to figure it out. If he doesn’t, he could lose his job. Al claims he has the solution “in his head,” but he’s not sharing.

Frank and Simmons run every play in management’s limited handbook on Al: flattery, team spirit, low-ball bribery, and cajolery. But Al’s no fool. He knows when he’s being played. He sees Frank’s and Simmons’s condescending manipulations for what they are. When Frank parrots corporate bromides about how we’re all in this together for the good of the company, Al fires back, “The company is money.” Franks taunts, “Have you been reading Marx?” Al, playing dumb, changes the subject with “I like their movies.” It’s not clear whether Al is jerking their chains because he just enjoys watching them squirm (“for laughs”) or for more calculating reasons. Even Al doesn’t seem sure of his motives.

Simmons half-orders Frank to woo Al (“Take him out for a few beers. Pick his brain”) to get what they need. Al knows what they want, and he’s going to make them pay for it, with their pride. He wants them to beg. And so the dance begins. Al and Frank’s cross-class tango is ripe with tensions, jealousy, moments of shared passion (for mechanical design), taunts, abusive gestures, calculated role-playing, silliness, and eventually a bonding that climaxes when they “solve” the problem together.

Everything seems to be working out. Just as we feel we’re on the verge of a liberal fairy-tale ending, Simmons orders them both to a meeting at his house on Sunday morning. Both fear the worst—that there’s something wrong with their plans. There isn’t.

The thing is, Al’s never quite gotten around to signing the release forms that will transfer ownership of his idea to the company. Because design isn’t part of his job description, Al’s design is his property—until he signs away the rights.

Simmons offers a one-time-only bonus of $10,000 if and when Al signs the papers. The audience, knowing just how much the patent rights are worth, audibly groaned at Al’s apparent eagerness to accept the offer. But then, Al counters. He wants $50K. Simmons balks. Al quotes one of Simmons’ own management-seminar inspired motivational slogans back at him, “Just Make It Happen!” They have a deal. Al feels like he’s won the lottery, elated that he’s finally slain his self-destructive demons and done something right. He’s on top of the world—until Frank realizes what’s really at play.

The savings and increased productivity from Al’s idea make it fiscally possible for the company to relocate all its manufacturing facilities to Asia. Al’s $50K has turned into 30 pieces of silver. If Al signs the deal, he’ll be putting all his friends out of work. He refuses to sign, threatening to go to the press and mobilize the union. Simmons just laughs at him. Unions are toothless. The press could care less. He threatens to crush Al with legal bills and unwinnable battles.

Al’s choice: take a stand and lose everything, or take the money and still lose everything. Al’s big personal win has suddenly become lose-lose. Frank, forced to chose sides, trapped in a corporate role of his own making and having just been promised a major promotion, toes the company line. He may be troubled by what’s happened and what he’s become, but he understands that while corporate enablers like him may never get a seat at the table, they at least get the leftovers, not just the crumbs. He’ll trade his conscience for a better house on the hill.

Inner conflicts roil beneath this tale of labor, management, capital, the limitations of trade unionism, and the heartless sociopathy of corporate culture. Personal histories are very much at work. Al’s late father was also a tool and die man with his own independent shop. When challenged by his wife, Al violently insists that he’s nothing at all like his head-strong, client-abusing father. When his father died, Al inherited the drafting tools—and his father’s debts. Frank too is ambivalent about his father. Frank grew up ashamed of his mailman father, but still struggles to understand why hundreds of people from his father’s route showed up at his wake. Even Simmons, we discover, was once a toolmaker just like Al and Al’s father.

The three men represent different social trajectories, as well as different sides of working class or formerly working class consciousness. Al proudly and often abrasively tub-thumps his proletarian identity. Frank, a salaried man who’s treated like an employee, is never totally comfortable in either Al’s world or Simmons’s. He aspires to climb the social ladder but suffers the anxieties of middle-rung corporate enablers. Simmons has so thoroughly turned his back on his origins that he looks upon workers with thinly veiled contempt, as if they’re a separate sub-species to be tamed, used, then discarded once drained of their usefulness.

King’s play and the Elephant Theatre Company, now in its 13th season, are a perfect marriage. A quick glance at the program bios reveals unusual backgrounds. Where one typically finds strings of theatre, film, and television credits, these reveal membership in unions. James Pippi, in the starring role of Al, tells us that he belongs to the Millwrights Union Local 1607. The playwright was—and still is—a machinist, designer, and teacher of machining and mold making. The director, David Fofi, is a Navy veteran. The cast holds membership in one or more of the actors’ unions (Actors Equity, SAG, AFTRA). One wonders if, during the inevitable conversations that occur during rehearsals, any of these discussions explored the relationships and attitudes of these characters (and these actors) toward their organizations or “organized labor” in general.

The play and this production breathe with the weighted generations of men and women who punch clocks and fashion durable goods from metal, load our trucks, fight the country’s wars and drink its (now Belgian) “king of beers.” This sensibility is established early, in an unscripted pre-set scene. The audience is assaulted with the noise of a tool & die shop floor. A radio blares over the thunder of the machines. Al is fashioning a metal part, sparks fly, bouncing off his mask. Doyle (George Russo) is spot-welding a component. Bobby (Frank Merino) is coaxing a temperamental machine into operation. All are wearing earplugs. It’s hot, noisy, dangerous. The looming presence of this near-sculptural set, with its heavy machinery, cable and conduits, serves as a constant reminder of the world in which this story is rooted even as the drama plays out in living rooms, lunch rooms, a motel room, conference rooms and offices.

Balance between this well-realized environment and the locations in which scenes are actually set is not always satisfactorily achieved. In scenes that are basically realistic, the use of a workbench, for example, as a luxurious sidebar shatters the suspension of disbelief. An ice bucket tucked beside a massive control box and a telephone buried among spare parts strain credibility. Too often, these double-duty substitutions feel like make-shift “rehearsal” solutions. In a play in which all but three scenes, including that unscripted pre-scene, are set in domestic or institutional interiors, the design choice is daring but misguided. Perhaps on a much bigger stage in which some isolation of foreground action could be achieved, this aspect of the physical production would sing. Here, on this postage stamp of a playing area, the apparatus merely hums like an untended, sometimes distracting, machine.

James Pippi as Al, under David Fofi’s masterful direction, brings to life a complex character with such authenticity it barely feels like acting. He’s matched by Robert Foster’s portrayal of Frank, a man torn between loyalties, obligations, ambition, and an instinct for fairness; his is the pathos of the team player.

Fofi, directing a uniformly wonderful cast, mines the comic potential in nearly every scene, eliciting laughs when cultures, personalities, values, and aspirations clash and collide, then, pulls the string, releasing the trapdoor, plunging us into scenes in which the dramatic tension is palpable. He blends a potent cocktail of laughter and edge-of-the-seat dread.

Unlike so many playwrights who take us into the world of working people, King never sentimentalizes their world. It’s realistically hard, often crude, its denizens imaginatively and intellectually stunted. Men like Al are an exception. King seems to understand just how difficult it is for culture and political consciousness to take root after putting in an eight-hour shift. Nor has he made the bosses into cartoon targets of contempt and hypocrisy.

King’s gift is the way in which he draws, then blurs, the class battle lines. A rich humanity pervades King’s work, fully realized by this enormously talented company.