Playwright Feasts on the Underbelly of Corporate Life : Theater: The author of 'The Downside' draws his comedy from efforts to hide savage, primitive motivations.

In person, Richard Dresser hardly seems the sort of fellow who would put the screws to you. Meeting his guest in the pool patio at a Santa Monica hotel, he makes sure that everyone has had coffee and that no one has to sit in the blazing sun. His manner is uncalculated, full of a satisfied working man's casual charm.

Yet there's a devil inside Dresser, which he reserves for the hours he's writing plays. Then, he puts the nice guy on hold, bringing out every torture device known to the topical comedy writer and applying it to his characters. For the Boston Globe's Kevin Kelly, Dresser "is a ferocious playwright . . . (who) writes with a headlong intensity and a sense of pervasive mystery."

His characters in "The Downside," currently receiving its West Coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, get hurt tumbling through the corporate hellhole.

Other Dresser characters seem to be in hell, like the fellow tuning in to UFO radio signals in "Better Days," or the lumpen proletariat couple living in the shadow of a nightmarish amusement park in "Splitsville." Even when his people can afford a holiday in the Hamptons ("Alone at the Beach"), they get in serious trouble.

"It doesn't matter, really, that the office in 'The Downside' is swanky and slick," the 38-year-old New York-based playwright said. "Ultimately, the comfortable exterior doesn't hide what I'm interested in, which is primitive motivations. We're never far away from them, and we go to great lengths to hide them--this is where the comedy comes from."

Things get fairly savage in the marketing offices of Mark & Maxwell, a pharmaceutical company preparing a "product launch" of a new anti-stress drug known as Maxolan-3000. It looks like a winner; a "downside" is the time-line for the launch--an impossible four-week free-fire zone of teleconferences, data surveys and strategy sessions. Another is the drug itself, which may have serious side effects.

"We all find ourselves in impossible situations we're sure we won't survive," Dresser noted. "But the original impulse for writing this wasn't to see how a group of people handled extreme pressure, what kind of laughs I could get out of that. It was to observe how we do business in this country right now."

He observed that it's easy to lose the impulse setting a play in motion, because the often-rough course from filling an empty piece of paper to getting the play to work on stage can lead the mind astray.

With "The Downside," this was less a problem than usual, since the ways of American business are something Dresser has experienced closer to the bone, perhaps, than many playwrights. In the early '80s, before major regional productions, grants and awards came his way, he free-lanced as a speechwriter for corporate executives and a writer of industrial films--often for pharmaceutical firms.

"I saw how they operated, up close, and I didn't like what I saw," he recalled. "They eat each other alive. Just as bad is this absurd split that exists for the employee between the urge to work for The Team and the urge to cover your rear end. Dave (head of Mark & Maxwell's marketing division) is where he is because he's been able to reconcile these two seemingly opposite needs. Alan (Dave's underling) can't, and tests Maxolan-3000 on himself as a moral decision. Dave's, unlike Alan's, is an unexamined life."

Dresser asserts that he's also tweaking the movie business, from the witless, fast-lane film maker recording the product launch for the bosses upstairs, to the whole process of ladder-climbing savagery and non-productivity. The author knows this world, too: He's writing an ABC TV movie, a segment for the HBO anthology "Out of the Sixties" (he also did one of the "Vietnam War Stories" for HBO) and even two screenplays, which won praise at, of all places, the Eugene O'Neill National Playwrights Conference.

The bright spot in his Hollywood adventures, he admitted, was "when I fell under the demonic spell of (TV producer) Jay Tarses and started writing, then story editing, for 'The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.' He also has (playwrights) Eric Overmyer and Albert Innaurato, so it's like Off-Broadway on TV."

But since marketing runs show business, "I wanted to do 'The Downside' here in L.A. In the end, the marketing people don't really make anything. They take meetings--and get ahead. But no one in this play is a villain. The villain is the system. The question is, are you going to be a part of the system?

"I'm not going to tell anyone what my moral perspective on the play is," he smiled, just as he wasn't comfortable pointing out his writing influences. "I've got one, but the whole point of being part of a theater audience is finding that point of view for yourself. My first obligation is to entertain: to engage the audience."

That may be Dresser's first obligation, but his primary drive seems to be to get plays out before an audience. His prolific output the past two years--three full-length works and three one-acts--is fairly amazing, considering the slug-like pace of American play production.

"I write fast, but after I got the juices going, I wrote 'The Downside' in a frenzy--about a month"--roughly the same time given the Maxolan marketing team. It was first produced in 1987 at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre by director Kenneth Frankel, who is restaging it here.

"This sudden rush (of visibility) is pretty deceptive though," Dresser added. "I wrote 'Better Days' five years ago. Now it's getting all this attention by regional theaters and, now, New York. So it's frustrating, but hopeful playwrights can't let that bother them. It's hard to develop as a playwright if you don't finish writing the thing. Then you can find your voice."

But, like a man proud but still puzzled by his trade, Dresser grinned as he confessed: "To actually sit down and decide that you're going to write a play isn't the most rational decision in the world."

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