STAGE REVIEW : Crawling Up the Corporate Ladder in 'Bug'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anyone who has ever been frustrated by the machinations of a corporate bureaucracy will get some laughs out of Richard Strand's "The Bug," at the Powerhouse in Santa Monica.

The play opens with a glow from what must be the most ergonomically incorrect computer terminals in America. The screens are positioned just a few inches from the faces of three office workers, so that we see only the computers, not the faces.

Into this apparently inhuman den walks Dennis (Paul Lieber), who works in the assembly department at Jericho, Inc. He's afraid he might be destined for a transfer to St. Louis, and he would like to put in a bid to stay here in Chicago.

No problem about St. Louis, he is told. But as he talks to the outermost guard (Cordis Heard) in the phalanx that protects the big boss, he lets it slip that no one has seen his supervisor for three years.

What's this--a bug in the system? Dennis is shuttled on up the hierarchical ladder, getting closer to the unseen boss. We see the corporate cogs (Dawn Davis and Richmond Hoxie) sweat over Dennis' casual references to a secret slush fund as well as his unseen supervisor. Who'll take the rap here?

This shaggy dog story has a satisfyingly mysterious ending that should not be revealed. Except for one unfortunate piece of contrived slapstick in Act I, Gwenn Victor directed with a sure hand.

Heard, Davis and Hoxie masterfully portray three contrasting flavors of corporate ice milk. Lieber is almost too vivid for the role of an anonymous Joe; his long gazes at the coffee machine in Act I, even after his interrogator has come from behind her computer, signal something amiss that isn't being said. However, when we later learn that Dennis isn't quite the simple guy he claims to be, Lieber's early body language makes more sense, though it still seems slightly heavy-handed.

The biggest problem with the production is Michael Medeiros' set, which looks much too bargain-basement for a big corporation. The ease with which the walls of this Jericho might come tumbling down should not be so obvious from a simple glance at the office furniture.

"The Bug," Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica, Thursdays-Sundays at 8 p.m. Ends March 10. $10. (213) 392-1082. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

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