If you’ve ever been put off by a job interview that was intimidating, demeaning or just plain strange, be thankful you weren’t among the candidates for a job at Burnham & Burnham, the fictional Fortune 500 company in “The Grönholm Method,” Catalan playwright Jordi Galcerán Ferrar’s expectation-defying comedy at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.
An American premiere, with translation by playwrights Anne Garcia-Romero and Mark St. Germain, this fierce satire of today’s brand of corporate whip-cracking begins with a simple premise: In the tastefully monochromatic conference room of Burnham & Burnham’s Wall Street headquarters, three men and one woman are awaiting their fourth interview for a high-level executive job.
Or are they?
From the time that a cabinet bin opens automatically to reveal an envelope containing the group’s first challenge — within a 10-minute time limit, the four must decide which one of them is actually a member of the company’s human resources department — it is apparent that nothing is going to be quite what it seems.
To answer the first challenge, the candidates begin a soon-contentious attempt to elicit information from each other. Frank and Rick are strangers to each other and to Carl and Melanie, who were college classmates and maybe something more, but shifting arguments and applied logic makes temporary allies of first one grouping, then another. Aggressive Frank (Jonathan Cake), a dapper “Madmen” type, eventually agrees with preppy Carl (Graham Hamilton) and attractive, no-nonsense Melanie (Lesli Margherita) that fussy, nerdy Rick (Stephen Spinella) has to be the HR plant.
Time has just about run out when that supposition (one that much of the audience likely shares at this point) is turned on its head.
The cabinet opens again. This envelope is addressed to Rick, who is visibly upset and who at first refuses to share what the card inside says. When he does, it seems to be an opportunity for the rest to reduce the competition by one. But again, “seems” is the operative word.
By now, the job hopefuls have caught on to the fact that these tests are the final interview process and that unseen observers are measuring their responses. The humor darkens as the tests and the candidates’ responses to them become disturbingly personal. It darkens further when real life raises the stakes for Melanie, who takes an emergency call about her mother’s hospitalization: One of the rules that the four must abide by is that anyone who leaves before the process is over will be disqualified.
Even as the laughs mount, a sense of threat and desperation builds in the candidates’ shift from offense to defense, and in Frank’s increasingly brutal attempts at intimidation as he latches onto what he perceives as his competitors’ emerging weaknesses.
After Rick’s challenge, the four next face a hypothetical situation: They are on a plane about to crash and there is only one parachute. One must convince the rest that only he or she deserves to live. And they must wear one of four silly hats — clown, cowboy, politician, bishop — and make their case for survival in character.
Feeling foolish, three of the four make the best of it. Frank, determined to claim the place of big dog in the room, alleviates his resentful participation with sarcasm and a dirty trick that may or may not have consequences.
The play is performed without an intermission, and for good reason. Uninterrupted momentum is crucial. The twists and turns continue, even beyond the apparent end of this wickedly funny indictment of corporate dominance in today’s world of pink slips, staff reductions and outsourcing.
To fully convey the play’s bold mix of the unexpected, comedy and truth (when the candidates arrive, the street below is clogged with Occupy Wall Street protesters), director and cast must be at the top of their game, and at the Falcon, they are assuredly that.
Veteran director BT McNicholl controls the careening action and quick-change emotive tones with both clarity and nuance, moving the actors around designer Brian Webb’s spot-on, stylish set — white walls and drapes, imposing double doors framed by a white arch, angular white-and-stainless steel chairs, subdued abstract paintings, gleaming glassware, glass table and designer water bottles — with observant precision.
Dressed in costume designer Ann Closs-Farley’s character-defining executive chic, the experienced actors, each with an impressive body of stage work to commend them, play what turn out to be roles-within-roles-within roles with enjoyable conviction, right down to the play’s one last sly surprise.
Fine light and sound design, by Jennifer Schriever and Cricket Myers, respectively, complete this class act.
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.
What: The Grönholm Method
Where: Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank, (818) 955-8101, www.falcontheatre.com.
When: 8 p.m. Tue. - Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 4 and 7 p.m. Sun. Ends Sept. 30. $34.50 to $42; students, $27.