Using new lyrics to familiar pop tunes combined with original songs, The Water Coolers pokes gentle fun at the modern, high-tech workplace and the harried, white-collar workers who inhabit it. There's a plot, sort of, or at least a narrative structure. On Monday at a nameless corporation, an office full of executives tries not to panic from the pressures of a presentation looming on Friday. The show tracks the progress of this one tense week and the lives -- business and personal -- of five execs. Most of this is played for laughs. In one particularly funny number, the workers' fears of losing their jobs are channeled into "Paranoia," to the tune of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus. One smug do-nothing reveals how he dodges work while looking busy in "The Great Pretender." In another number, a trio sings a hymn of praise to their beloved Palm Pilots. Goofy humor predominates, but some more serious elements crop up here and there, mostly regarding the conflicting demands of career and family.
The play's cheerful, inoffensive personality reveals its origins as an "industrial" show, created for corporate retreats and other business functions, before it was picked up and expanded for a successful off-Broadway run. Its portrait of corporate workers is predictably positive and geared toward the white, straight, family-oriented middle class. Much of its charm lies in the portrayal of everyday nuisances -- the office Lothario, the endless torture of automated phone systems, the absence of privacy in a world of cubicles -- and the jokes come from the recognition of the ordinary: "Turn it off and turn it on again" and "Why didn't they just buy a Mac?" are punch lines. The obvious style of writing extends from the reworked lyrics for the golden oldies, which aren't very witty, to the original melodies, which are decidedly routine. Cole Porter this is not.
All of this in unskilled hands might make for a bland show, but the Playhouse production is so peppy that it holds our interest. Arisco stages all with a crisp energy (the Playhouse wisely chooses to use its 300-seat Balcony Theatre for more intimacy), and Flaten makes imaginative choreographic use of everyday office objects: Laptops, furniture, and cell phones combine in ways never mentioned in their operational manuals. The polished, resourceful cast of five is a first-rate array of talented actor/singers who shine individually and together. Terrell Hardcastle is on the money as a preening Ivy League hotshot, so intent on being the office hottie that he uses every mirror he passes as an excuse to check himself out. Heath Kelts brings a John Cleese-like comic mania to an awkward manager whose survival strategy is to disagree with all proposals but his own. Wayne LeGette offers a sly turn as the company tech guru whose best talent is creating the appearance that he's working hard, while Stacy Schwartz is effective as a hard-driving worker with a no-go love life. In the show's most moving number, "One Rung Higher," a harried senior exec and mother (Margot Moreland) rues the damage her family life suffers while she advances in her career.
While there's nothing dramatic or startling about these concerns, the show's ordinariness is actually its most unusual aspect. Most portrayals of corporations and corporate workers in plays, musicals, and films tend to be negative, often hostile, implying that corporate workers are by definition either brainwashed or morally deficient. But this revue's empathy for its characters and the upbeat depiction of the tradeoffs that corporate life demands of its employees give the show much of its appeal. It offers a humanizing counterportrait, and a fond one. Once again, the Actors' Playhouse demonstrates its knack for appealing to its audience base, an upscale, corporate crowd. The Water Coolers is a good bet for work-weary 9-to-5ers looking for a chance to cool off, relax, and -- gently -- laugh at themselves.