‘The Consultant’: a serious business comedy

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Creepy and funny in equal measure, the Heidi Schreck play “The Consultant” is receiving its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre through Feb. 9.

The comedy set in a semi-deserted New York City office — where continuing lay-offs have given the place the look of a “future shock” ghost realm — will unsettle those who might be wondering where they and their job might be in a few months’ time.

Schreck gives this black comedy an up-to-the-minute feel with its twentysomething title character — Amelia (Clare Barron) — already burdened with $100,000 in loans for her New York University education as she tries to help an anxious Korean-American designer, Jun Suk (Nelson Lee), prepare for an important presentation at his Big Pharma ad agency.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The receptionist, Tania (Cassie Beck), spends most of her time telling callers that the person(s) they are trying to reach are no longer employed at the ad agency.

Mark (Darren Goldstein) is a coked-up salesman whose confidence is wafer thin and whose drunken hook-up in a bar bathroom with Tania becomes a major plot point in the brisk 90-minute, intermissionless play.

In the middle of the action, ex-employee Barbara (Lynne McCollough) strolls in to talk with one of the executives — who of course is not in — and proceeds to give the startled Amelia a quick but high pressured sales pitch to join her that evening for a free introductory seminar for The Forum (Werner Erhard’s est spin-off that is still popular with type-A types in Manhattan).

McCollough only has one relatively brief scene but she makes it count. Barbara has started her own business — drawing what she claims is a much higher salary — and the fact that she has no ties to the unsettling ad agency allows her to deliver withering and very funny commentary on the place she has left behind.

Director Kip Fagan has created a very tight ensemble which keeps this melancholy comedy spinning. The technical elements are top notch, too, with an all too real office set and then a seamless last scene switch to a hospital room.

In “The Consultant,” Heidi Schreck examines the fine line between hilarity and horror in modern corporate culture with very winning results — kudos to Long Wharf for sponsoring this bracingly contemporary slice of life.

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Joe Meyers