Anyone who's had to endure the forced collegiality of brainstorms, trust exercises and role-playing with co-workers in stuffy, enclosed spaces will recognize the sense of being trapped in a comically bad dream that Steven Levenson has created in his tense new play, "Core Values."
One difference is that there are a lot more laughs in Levenson's comedy thanks to a well-tuned cast led by Reed Birney. Author of "The Language of Trees," Levenson perceptively captures a suffocating workplace vibe, which Carolyn Cantor's smart direction brings humorously to life for a brief run on the very intimate Ars Nova stage.
Levenson finds laughter or telling moments while conveying the uncomfortable or awkward, often-wordless moments that can ensue during forced proximity of team-building events with colleagues. These are carefully paced by Cantor ("The Great God Pan" and "After the Revolution") for maximum impact, including the timing of frequent breaks during the retreat.
Birney ("Picnic" on Broadway, "Uncle Vanya" at Soho Rep), plays beleaguered Richard, the owner of a small, struggling travel agency who still naively believes in teamwork and loyalty.
Richard is blithely unaware of the dissatisfaction secretly churning among his longtime staff as he takes them through a low-budget, unpaid, weekend team-building retreat — in the office conference room — while he desperately tries to figure out how to deal with the shattered travel marketplace.
Part of Birney's talent and appeal is the way he makes his Everyman seem so natural. Richard's vulnerability resonates and builds throughout his cheerful and generally ineffectual staff coaching, as when Birney slowly and visibly deflates after one staffer thoughtlessly turns a feel-good exercise into a negative contemplation.
Susan Kelechi Watson wears an often superior air as senior salesperson Nancy, who challenges much of what Richard says and is downright rude, in amusingly staged ways. Erin Wilhelmi is a shimmering mess of trembling nerves and sweetly naive enthusiasm as the shy new office assistant, Eliot. Wilhelmi seems fragile, but gives a strong performance as Eliot increasingly panics about getting no actual training for her new sales job.
Paul Thureen rounds out the cast as seemingly doltish office and website manager Todd, with Thureen playing up Todd's earnest ineffectuality until he unleashes some surprising moxie.
While each character eventually shares personal dissatisfactions, some communication misreads lead to a terrible personal misunderstanding that completely changes the team dynamics.
Despite numerous setbacks, Richard may salvage a glimmer of hope for the future of his company if Eliot gets inspired enough by his team spirit to move beyond rearranging water bottles.