Below the Belt

Stephen Frankenfield, Steve Wood and Matthew Copley in “Below the Belt,” one of the Mac best comedy nominees.

Ryan Fagan

“Below the Belt” is dark, existential, and cynical.

And oh my is it funny.

Live Theatre Workshop’s production of the Richard Dresser comedy had the April 1 opening night audience laughing with the first scene, and it never let up.

The trio of actors, Annette Hillman’s direction and Richard Gremel’s set design of a personality-free factory all lent themselves to an evening of hilarity. Underscoring the factory’s lack of ambiance is the preshow music, right out of an elevator playlist.

We don’t know where the factory is located, other than some far-off desert. We don’t know what is manufactured, though we learn 20,911 units are pushed out a day. There’s water near it — we know this because the factory’s emissions have turned the river into colors that, as one character says, are never found in nature.

Dobbitt (Steve Wood) and Hanrahan (Stephen Frankenfield) are “checkers” — the dweebs no one likes as they make sure that the product is perfect before it’s shipped out. They are a little puffed up with their power, and completely insecure at the same time.

Even more puffed up is their boss, Merkin (Matthew C. Copley), who checks the checkers. But, it turns out, he has massive insecurities, as well.

The story is about how each is jockeying for position and power, which is far more important to them than the strange, clearly mutant, creatures that are multiplying, or that the land and water around them is doing very unnatural things thanks to the toxins from the factory.

But this isn’t an eco-play, or a Mamet-esque commentary on corporations. It’s a piece that provides laughter at the foibles of men whose universe is small but whose egos are big and who take a sort of vicious glee in playing the manipulative games that can define corporate life.

Frankenfield’s Hanrahan is tightly wound and smug. When his fury is unleashed on the much more meek Dobbitt — well, it isn’t pretty. And Wood makes Dobbitt’s reticence and “gosh, it’s good to meet you” demeanor funny while he gives him a sweet vulnerability.

As the bossman Merkin, Copley is just a hoot as he tries to play the two men against each other, dangling promotions and hollow gestures designed to endear them to him. He, in turn, is manipulated and played by the big shots we never meet, but they are there, hovering over the employees, making everyone paranoid about their jobs and their lives.

Don’t look for deeper meaning here. It doesn’t exist and we don’t care. That’s what continual laughter will do to you. And for you.

“Below the Belt” continues at Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway, through May 6. Tickets are $15-$20 at 327-4242 or livetheatreworkshop.org.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@tucson.com or 573-4128.