‘What We’re Up Against’ was written in 1992, but in the #MeToo era, it couldn’t be more timely

Samantha Corey is Eliza in "What We're Up Against," presented by Raleigh Little Theatre, which addresses sexist behavior and gender equality in the workplace. Brian Westbrook and Dan Cullen also star. Areon Mobasher Photography

With Theresa Rebeck’s “What We’re Up Against,” Raleigh Little Theatre chalks up another hit, one more on its growing record of consistently strong productions.

That consistency, along with the cast’s established qualities, likely contributed to the show’s 11-performance run being sold out by its premiere Friday. As a result, a new show has been added for Jan. 20 at 3 p.m.

But the most probable cause is the subject matter: sexist behavior and gender inequality in the workplace. The topic is regularly in the news these days as the #MeToo movement continues to have momentum following high-profile sexual harassment and assault allegations in multiple industries.

Despite Rebeck writing “What We’re Up Against” in 1992, the year that the play is set, the most startling aspect of the comedy is its gut-punching relevance. When one female character asks, “Why is it still like this?” the significant lack of progress over the past quarter-century hits home.

The problem is set out hilariously – and shockingly – in the first scene. Stu, an architectural firm team leader, is commiserating with architect Ben over pushy attempts by recently hired Eliza to get assignments without working through the established (read: male-dominated) system. Both demean Eliza in the most vulgar terms and see her as the enemy in a turf war.

Eliza, too, sees the situation as war. Hired for her established talents, she’s consistently shut out of projects, the work going to Weber, a blatantly ill-equipped boss-pleaser, and to Janice, the long-suffering token who plays the game. Eliza’s determination to break the barriers to equality makes for marvelous battles of wits and several surprising plot twists.

The script’s male characters can border on caricature, and some scenes become repetitive. There’s also an excessive amount of crude language. But the script boldly exposes still-entrenched misogyny and the way it promotes unproductive competition among female colleagues scratching for crumbs.

Director Heather J. Strickland minimizes the script’s liabilities, giving it vibrant energy and multi-layered characterizations. Even the scene changes are choreographed, with stagehands in business suits.

Samantha Corey fills Eliza with appropriate anger and frustration, making her feistiness and wily gambits understandable, and her subsequent remorse for certain actions believable. Her best scenes are with Janice, whom Benji Taylor Jones gives a highly sympathetic characterization. Rebeck and Strickland make sure that neither woman is seen as right or wrong, both combating the stacked deck in their own ways.

Brian Westbrook turns in another fine performance as Ben, his subtle expressions of irritation and panic amusing but also indicating a realization that things can’t stay the same. Simon Kaplan’s bitter, closed-minded Stu is a stage-filling performance, his outrageous stances bringing on gales of laughter, followed by guilt at finding them funny. Dan Cullen’s self-satisfied Weber veers toward caricature, but he serves the play well as a pompous foil to Eliza.

The show is being staged in Peace University’s Leggett Theatre because RLT’s Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre’s renovations are delayed. Elizabeth Newton’s three-tiered set design cleverly designates office locations with details of architectural drawings. There’s additional seating on both sides of the playing space, thrusting audience members into the thick of things but causing sight-line problems during several scenes.

“What We’re Up Against” presented by Raleigh Little Theatre

Where: Leggett Theatre, Main Building, William Peace University, 15 E. Peace St., Raleigh
When: Shows run through Jan. 28. A show has been added for 3 p.m. Jan. 20. Other performances are sold out. Call for any updates on ticket availability.
Tickets: $25 (students/seniors $21)
Info: 919-821-3111 or raleighlittletheatre.org

Jan 25: A post-show discussion features thoughts on the show and how it connects to the current climate. It will feature Theresa Joan Rosenberg, a lawyer and architect, and Jennifer Wagner, lead planning and design project manager at Stewart Inc.

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