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Cast member ponders sincere wokeness vs. satire hilarity

“References, references. These days, all comedy is references,” said my fellow “Office Hours” cast member, Harmon Andrews, after making a reference I didn’t understand.

To be fair, I still haven’t seen the movie “The Fugitive,” but thanks to my modest role in Trumbull New Theatre’s production of “Office Hours,” I have a pretty good idea of some plot points.

Norm Foster’s 1996 satire “Office Hours” leans heavily into references, devoting the entirety of one of the six workday vignettes to just one movie reference. It does, in my opinion, make for good comedy — which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

In “Office Hours,” Foster also seeks laughs by creating uneven power dynamics. My character, for example, is a young, powerful and downright mean television news station manager. I play opposite veteran local actor Thomas Burd, who does a fantastic job oscillating between confidence and squirrelly, bumbling submission in his role as a middle-aged reporter attempting — and failing to — confront his boss.

The scene relies on the audience finding it funny that a middle-aged man is terrified of his younger, female boss. People do find it funny, as audiences at our first weekend of performances have shown, thanks mostly, I think, to Burd’s enthusiastic performance.

To varying degrees the other five vignettes also pit a strong character against a weaker counterpart, oftentimes with a — let’s say domineering — woman opposite a submissive man.

As an actor, it’s a blast to play a mean, powerful woman. I don’t wear three-inch spiked heels in real life, but I’ll stride across a stage in them any day because it’s fun to get outside of myself. Here’s to escapism.

Still, when I see a play full of mean, powerful women whose main function is generating laughter, it does give me pause. Maybe it’s because I am of the younger “woke” generation, but I want to see more dynamic, clever women on stage — some mean, some kind, some commanding a scene and others supporting it.

Of course Foster isn’t out to create dynamic characters. That’s not what satire is about, so I can’t fault him too much for his bossy-woman caricatures.

I also don’t want to discount the performances of the fantastic women in the cast. Every one of them makes the absolute most of their characters and, I think, has fun doing it.

It is worth mentioning, though, that every actress in the show is cast in a single role, while most of the men are double-cast, simply because there are fewer parts for women (five women compared to 11 men) and Director Ben Gavitt wanted to grant all five of us a spot on the stage. The show can, by the way, be done with just five actors, two women and three men.

With three performances under my belt, I have seen three fairly different reactions to the show. Saturday’s audience ate up every joke, providing us with ample laughter and energy. A robust audience Friday and a smaller group Sunday were surely entertained, but were quieter.

I bring up the audience because I have wondered more than once if the show’s jokes are landing as well today as they did when it was first released 25 years ago. “Office Hours” is a product of the mid-90s, and it isn’t afraid to make fun of a character’s weight or call someone with poor mental health a “nut,” which doesn’t sit quite right with me. I know, I’m being woke again, but in my defense, I’m only a year older than the play.

Still, Foster’s more irreverent setups lead to some of the funniest punchlines in the show. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh.

Which brings me round to my final point. “Office Hours” really is a funny show. Foster manages to tie together the stories of six “unrelated” offices with a truly impressive bow while also dropping some side-splitting one-liners, and yes, making pretty great pop culture references too. I regret to say that I haven’t read or seen any of Foster’s other plays, though I know Gavitt has staged a few before, and I can see why. I imagine all of Foster’s shows are packed with wit and wordplay.

I’m biased, I know, but “Office Hours” is a show worth seeing. It’s also worth thinking about what we find funny and why, because the stories we tell matter, even when we’re just telling them for a laugh.

As for this newspaper reporter — a newspaper reporter playing a TV news exec? Funny, right? — it’s been nice to indulge in one of my favorite hobbies.

Thanks to everyone who saw the show opening weekend — especially those 30 “nuts” who came to the Sunday matinee in a snowstorm.

Allie Vugrincic is a staff reporter and photographer. “Office Hours” will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Trumbull New Theatre, 5883 Youngstown Warren Road, Niles.

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