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Paulanne Simmons

A Closer Look at “Core Values”

"Core Values"
Directed by Carolyn Cantor
Ars Nova
511 West 54 Street)
Opened May 6, 2013
Monday thru Saturday at 8pm
Tickets: $30 (212) 352-3101 or www.arsnovanyc.com
Closes May 18, 2013
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons May 13, 2013


L-R: Erin Wilhelmi, Reed Birney. Photo by Ben Arons.

In Steven Levenson’s new play, “Core Values,” Richard (Reed Birney), who owns a small, struggling travel agency, attempts to strengthen company moral through a weekend retreat held in the company’s office.

In attendance are Eliot (Erin Wilhelmi), a timid new hire, confused and trying desperately to please; Todd (Paul Thureen), who is resentful over his low status in the company and troubled by his growing estrangement from his girlfriend, who lives in another city; and Nancy (Susan Kelechi Watson), a loyal, if somewhat defeated employee with a child and a husband who (based on phone conversations) seems to behave like a child himself. Even Richard has personal problems; he is divorced, and his children do not like visiting him in his new apartment.

Richard believes if he can just get his employees to work like a team, based on the core values of trust, loyalty and cooperation, business will get better. He refuses to acknowledge that times have changed. Computers and the Internet have dealt a death blow to his business. His employees have their own problems. The ship is sinking, and his staff is more anxious to bail out than to bail.

L-R: Paul Thureen, Susan Kelechi Watson, Erin Wilhelmi. Photo by Ben Arons.

Under the skilled direction of Carolyn Cantor, the play moves smoothly from one instance to another illustrating how Richard’s best efforts fail. Eliot remains eager but clueless. Todd remains resentful. Nancy remains overburdened both at home and at work.

The four actors in “Core Values” are all so believable it is likely that many in the audience will immediately recognize them as friends and acquaintances. Their interaction is intense and astute.

Stevenson is quite brilliant at capturing early 21st century dialogue and at the same time revealing character. “Core Values” is at time excruciatingly funny and hilariously painful. The scenes in which the staff play-act at making or receiving business calls are particularly successful.

By the conclusion of the play, Richard learns what everyone in the audience knew from the very beginning: his attempts are doomed. And herein lies the problem that great acting and direction cannot overcome.

L-R: Erin Wilhelmi, Paul Thureen. Photo by Ben Arons.

Sometime around the middle of this show (or maybe before), it becomes obvious that nothing will (or can) be resolved. It’s sort of like standing by the shore watching someone drowning at sea. It’s just a question of counting how many times he sinks and rises before going under for the last time.

In the play’s final scene Richard and Eliot have a conversation during which Richard laments the fact that people no longer work with their hands and the marketplace has taken over. But his speech seems truncated and out of place. It does not show that Richard has any real insight into the turn his life and work has taken.

“Core Values” definitely works as a glimpse into some of the issues that plague modern society. But those who are looking for something they didn’t know all too well already may be disappointed.


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