- Backstage Online 06-07
- Boston Globe 07-02
- NY Times 07-07
- Village Voice 07-07
- Beaufort Gazette 10-04
- Boston Herald 11-04
- New Theater Corps #1 07-07
- New Theater Corps #2 07-07
- NYTheatre.com 06-07
- Off Off Online 07-07
- Proskep 05-07
- Stage Magazine Online 07-07
June 29, 2007
By A.J. Mell
If pressed, I would have to say that a South Carolina accounting firm is not the most promising theatrical terrain. And yet playwright James Rasheed has somehow turned the world’s most eye-glazingly dull profession into an entertaining, stiletto-sharp satire of office politics and macho head games. As enacted by an offbeat and very funny cast, it is flat-out terrific.
The play details the power-shifting effects of an accounting scandal on four auditors at a Charleston CPA firm. Leo (Steve French) is an overconfident gay- and race-baiting bully, though we suspect he’s driven less by prejudice than by an adolescent delight in unabashed nastiness. The relatively meek Paul (Matthew J. Nichols) says things like “Who gives a darn?” and has a penchant for bow ties. Margaret (Britney Burgess) is the Tab-sipping office bombshell who finds herself promoted to manager. Greg (Wesley Thornton), the least weird of the bunch, is a quiet religious type with unexpected flashes of temper.
Rasheed based the play partially on his own experiences at a similar firm; he also appears to have seen Glengarry Glen Ross a few times. When testosterone-poisoned men in conspicuously capitalist professions go for each other’s throats, it’s hard not to feel the specter of Mamet hovering nearby, but if Rasheed is not as brutal or poignant as Mamet, he provokes a lot more guffaws. Director Kareem Fahmy encourages his actors’ idiosyncrasies, resulting in larger-than-life characters who stop short of caricature. Leo is the play’s most toothsome role, and French’s absurdly resonant baritone adds an extra bit of drollery to his readings, but the whole ensemble deserves credit for the production’s comic chemistry.
The financial shenanigans that drive the plot are the play’s McGuffin (something of pressing interest to the characters but completely irrelevant to the audience). Much has been made of the play’s “prophetic” anticipation of the Enron and WorldCom scandals, which makes it sound as if white-collar crime is a rarity on the order of Halley’s comet. I think Rasheed is more interested in how office intrigue and rumormongering affect individuals — and how the drive to be top dog can leave you chasing your own tail.by Zootopia Theatre Company at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, 312 W. 36th St., NYC.
June 28-July 15. Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (No matinee performance Sat., June 30.)
An Audit of ‘Sketicism’ Turns up Laughs
July 9, 2002
Author: Ellen Pfeifer
WELLFLEET – If you thought accountants lived lives as gray as their double-entry numbers, then James Rasheed’s hilarious new play “Professional Skepticism” ought to correct your (understandable) miscalculation. Rasheed’s tale of internecine warfare between the spreadsheets opened last weekend at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater and runs through July 27.
Who better to tell the tale of raw competitiveness and backstabbing among accountants than Rasheed, who used to work as an auditor for a Big Five accounting firm before pursuing a master’s degree in playwriting at Brandeis University? Who else would know how common it was to cook the corporate books even before the Enron scandal erupted? The playwright speaks with rare authority and insight as well as mathematically precise shafts of wit. The setting is a minimalist conference room in a Big Five accounting firm in Charleston, S.C. In Dan Joy’s evocation, there is a large work-table, laptop computers, steel filing cabinets, and dry-erase boards on the wall. A projection screen displays pie charts and bar graphs pertaining to the company being audited. It also displays the day and time of the current action.
Three accountants occupy the office: Paul (Chris Faith) and Greg (Yaegel Welch), who are junior-level staffers, and Leo (Robert Pemberton), the senior member of the team. The trio is working on an expedited corporate audit and the impossibly short deadline makes it tempting to overlook a few irregularities.
In any event, most of the accountants are paying more attention to their own firm’s looming corporate merger, their individual chances of survival or advancement, and their efforts to neutralize the competition posed by their colleagues.
Leo, a nasty piece of work, specializes in the not-so-subtle putdown, the sardonic puncturing of any hint of self-confidence in his colleagues – even though he still has not passed the final section of the accountant’s certification exam, something both his junior staffers have accomplished. Greg, a new hire, has passed the exam on his first try with the highest possible score. However, under Leo’s tutelage, he’s learning that native smarts may not be enough to succeed. He doesn’t say much, and he doesn’t appear to work very hard, but he becomes the master of office calumny.
Sweetly dweeby Paul is the office straight shooter. He would happily be friends with all his colleagues as well as the attractive and fun-loving Margaret (Marianna Bassham), an accountant on another project team. Naively, he catches all the audit irregularities and refuses to go along with his teammates who would gloss over them. But Paul can only take so much of Leo and Greg’s backbiting and scheming. In the second half of the play, he goes on the offensive – as signaled by his change into a power suit and slicked-back hair. He engineers a plot that will take everyone down when company fraud is revealed.
Rasheed sets forth the basic issues of a corporate audit with such clarity and succinctness that even the mathematically challenged can understand them. His dialogue is sharp and funny and the dramatic situation he depicts has a universality that speaks to any viewer. What’s more, under Jason Slavick’s direction, the production zips along as swiftly and precisely as an adding machine.
The cast is spot-on in every role – and Faith, in the central part of Paul, is particularly sympathetic. One can only cheer him on in his quest for revenge by the numbers.
New York Times
Keep an Eye Out for Sharks Among the Debits and Credits
July 3, 2007
By Ginia Bellafante
Before he received a master’s in playwriting several years ago, James Rasheed, press notes tell us, worked as an auditor for a Big Eight accounting firm. “Professional Skepticism,” a six-year-old play of his receiving its New York debut from the Zootopia Theater Company, lies caught somewhere between “Revenge of the Nerds” and “The Apartment,” between a goofy retribution fantasy against the cocksure and almighty, and a dark comedy of corporate immorality. Tonally it is the sort of play you might imagine coming from an accountant who looked at the big cigar of David Mamet’s career and decided to situate himself among the ashes.
The brute at hand is a guy named Leo (Steve French), a junior manager who antagonistically oversees a team of minions working against a looming deadline on an audit of a shady client. Leo’s swagger and arrogance, the way he makes his subordinates feel like the rumpled scraps of paper and the hand wipes on his messy desk, are meant to obscure his creeping emasculation. He just can’t pass his C.P.A. exam.
Mr. French, tall with a strong sense of composure and a deep baritone, looks like just the sort of grind for whom tests never present much of a problem, and this is a problem of its own. The invidiousness born of profound insecurity is something that he cannot easily convey.
Mr. French never gets as believably brutal as the writing wants him to be. His voice is so confident and distinctive, it intrudes, as if a church bell were ringing in a gym. Throughout the play I kept imagining how well he would do narrating a public service announcement and wishing I were seeing him in something else.
But here he is sent off to victimize; his chief target is a striver not receiving his due, a young accountant named Paul, whom Matthew J. Nichols plays as a first-rate disgruntled sycophant. Were Paul merely thus. But Mr. Rasheed turns him into a closeted homosexual as well. And that only blurs his motivations when he begins to exact his payback at the firm, leaving “Professional Skepticism” with an audience of skeptics.“Professional Skepticism” runs through July 15 at the Abingdon Theater Arts Complex, 312 West 36th Street, Manhattan, (212) 868-4444.
July 10, 2007
By Andy Propst
James Rasheed rips a page from David Mamet’s notebook with Professional Skepticism. Or, since Rasheed’s dramedy centers on a group of duplicitous CPAs at a Southern accounting firm, perhaps one should say it’s drawn from a Mamet-esque ledger.
The play’s below-the—Mason-Dixon Line milieu means it’s not filled with the scatological epithets we associate with Mamet. But as alpha-male team leader Leo (Steve French) shepherds two underlings through a rush-job audit of a company belonging to one of their boss’s best buds, Machiavellian backstabbing pervades. Leo isn’t the only guy who has to make it through the audit and the firm’s impending merger: The sweetly nerdy Paul (Matthew J. Nichols) and rising new hire Greg (Wesley Thornton) must also manage to simultaneously survive and shine. Even their fun-loving, hard-drinking colleague Margaret (Britney Burgess) must use her Southern drawl and charm to thrive at the company. It comes as little surprise, then, that when the audit reveals potential financial improprieties, one of these sharks in CPA suits smells blood, recognizing how to use the potential scandal to his advantage.
Rasheed, who worked at a firm similar to Professional Skepticism’s, knows his characters well, and the play often crackles with rich dialogue and keen detail. But his overladen plot, director Kareem Fahmy’s strangely laid-back staging, and a needless intermission combine to sap this 90-minute piece’s momentum. It’s a lunge at the accounting world’s jugular that, though promising, falls short.
‘Profession Skepticism’ a masterful piece of cynicism
Published Friday, October 15th, 2004
If David Mamet had written a play about cutthroat accountants in Charleston, he might have written South Carolina Repertory Company’s current production, “Professional Skepticism.”
All of the Mamet components are in the play: rough language, overarching ambition and greed, misanthropy, misogyny and homophobia, dark, witty dialogue that makes the audience wince as well as laugh, and great, naturalistic roles for actors to flirt with almost-but-not-quite over-the-top performances.
But “Professional Skepticism” was written by relative newcomer James Rasheed, and in some ways, the play is superior to the canonical works of cynicism by Mamet and others.
It is at once a grand, even Shakespearean revenge tale, and a consistently funny look at the surprisingly compelling drama inherent in corporate accounting practices. At its heart, though, the play is less cynical than insightful as it meticulously examines the distressing state of our modern relationships with our contemporaries, our vocations, and ourselves.
The simple, utilitarian conference room set has a realistic feel to it, enhanced by interesting light fixtures, drab office-style art, and a dry-erase board, which the actors scribble on during scene changes to indicate the passing of days as an audit deadline looms.
The plot centers around that deadline. Too much story exposition would ruin a good second act surprise, and it would be difficult, in any case, to explain the intricacies of the action of the play without CPA certification. However, it was surprisingly easy to follow what was happening with the machinations and maneuvers that drove the plot — a testament to the good writing, as well as the clear direction by Chip Egan, who allowed the actors to tell the story through their relationships with each other. The cast also had obvious command of their material.
The performances in the four-person cast were all good, though Blake White, as Southern schlub Paul, and Jim Stark, as sleazy Leo, were outstanding.
White’s total physical control of his character throughout the play was masterful. He relished playing a sort of “Everydork,” perhaps the most recognizable character in the bunch, the adorable but annoying, utterly eager to please mutt in a kennel full of pit bulls. His background in improvisational acting served him well, as his skills at listening to the other actors were remarkable.
Among the many references to hierarchy and status in the play are a few mentions of the way dogs mark territory, and Stark’s Leo is, for a time, top dog in office rank, though, having not passed all of the tests in the CPA exam, his days are clearly numbered from the beginning. A sort of yuppie Iago, he overcompensates for his small stature and insecure career status with a sinister swagger and astonishingly creepy line readings. It’s worth the price of admission to watch this guy flick a rubber band and hiss “super star.” He locks on to his ever-changing targets with the tenacity of a never-say-die bully, yet his characterization is surprisingly vulnerable in the play’s second act.
The thin veneers of Southern charm and religious conviction are stripped away fairly quickly to reveal real avarice and hypocrisy. “Yankee” Greg, played by Nick Newell, seems sweet enough, at first, but his church-going is revealed to be only a part of his Ambitious Young Man costume, not unlike his Brooks Brothers suit. He quickly shows an un-Baptist facility for sprinkling profanity into conversation and a fondness for Leo’s gross stories. Greg is more chameleon than Christian, reducing his ostensible religious convictions to convenient, and, as it turns out, revealing aphorisms like, “God helps those who helps themselves.”
Peggy Trecker plays Margaret, a steely, insincere party girl who more than holds her own in this bad boys’ club. The character did not feel as fleshed out or as fully realized in some ways as the men’s characters, yet another trait Rasheed’s play has in common with Mamet’s work.“Professional Skepticism” runs through Oct. 24. For tickets and information, call 681-5194 or visit www.hiltonheadtheatre.com.
Nasty office politics adds comic bite to `Skepticism’
Tuesday, November 9, 2004
By Robert Nesti
The ghost that haunts James Rasheed’s “Professional Skepticism” is that of David Mamet, whose “Glengarry Glen Ross” is the model for this type of drama about cutthroat office politics.
Not that that’s a bad model to follow, and Rasheed is smart enough to put his own stamp on the machinations of a quartet of disagreeable accountants working for a major firm in the backwater of Charleston, W.Va.
Perhaps that accounts for their general disagreeable natures; obviously their ambitions are to be transferred elsewhere as they play each other’s strengths and weaknesses in a canny game of one-upmanship.
Though a Boston premiere, this isn’t the first time this dark comedy had a local production: Two seasons ago it was at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre; and prior to that it was staged by Brandeis University in Waltham, where the playwright received his MFA in playwriting. This production comes from the South Carolina Repertory Theatre.
Like Mamet’s work, the play bristles with subjects and topics that would likely have most employees sent to human resources. Characters gay-bait, make sexist comments and innuendos (“I wish I could be serviced as many times as that copier”) and generally push the envelope of acceptable office behavior.
This certainly enlivens the story that centers on an audit three low-level accountants are conducting on an accelerated schedule. Leo, the lead, is a sadistic bully who takes his frustrations with his failed career and marriage out on his underlings: Paul, the detail-oriented nerd, and Greg, the pretty boy whose career is on the upswing. Add to the mix a co-worker named Margaret, who uses her sensuality to score points to get ahead, and you have the ingredients for a comedy far tastier than an episode of “The Apprentice.”
Rasheed uses accounting terms and procedures to root his play in reality; but this isn’t a docudrama, rather a deftly told revenge story with its own moral ambiguities. In the end you don’t know whether to root for its anti-hero, or simply damn him to a management position.
Blake White has a creepy charm as Paul, the junior accountant with a devious master plan; Jim Stark brings considerable viciousness to Leo; and Nick Newell plays the WASPy, church-going Greg with just the right blend of folksy charm and calculated ambition.
Peggy Trecker manages to bring some life to what could be a one-note caricature as the steely office flirt. Chip Egan’s crisp staging and deadly accurate set design (right down to the artificial ficus tree) only add to the success of this tight, nasty play.“Professional Skepticism,” presented by the South Carolina Repertory Theatre, at the Actors Workshop Proscenium Theatre, Boston, through Sunday.
New Theater Corps
July 08, 2007
By Ellen Wernecke
The program notes for the dark comedy “Professional Skepticism,” the first production of the new Zootopia Theatre Company, mention that playwright James Rasheed based the show on his own career as a CPA. He deserves kudos for sticking it out that long, if this chronicle of an everyday audit gone nasty has any real-life precedent. Two staff accountants, weasely Paul (Matthew J. Nichols) and scrupulous Greg (Wesley Thornton), toil under a steady shower of abuse from their senior Leo (Steve French). Leo professes not to care about making it to the esteemed partner level, but Paul and Greg aren’t smart enough to hide their own ambition, if they even know how. When one of them finds major errors in the audit on deadline, it’s not a surprise that one of the team will sell the others out, just a matter of who’s going to profit.
“Professional Skepticism” is twisted fun, with an unsettling resonance for anyone who’s ever thrown down the gauntlet in the name of office politics. The skepticism of the title — what’s lost when personal relationships override business judgment — is quoted as an advisory when Paul finds out Greg went out with a secretary from the firm being audited. But it’s a practice all of the accountants indulge in to keep them from going crazy in their claustrophobic office (the space of which director Kareem Fahmy uses every inch). Paul and Greg throw elbows to be assigned to a project with beautiful Margaret (Britney Burgess), the only accountant who seems to be having any fun, but she only has eyes for dour Leo. In this world, it’s better never to cash in that favor or do the downsizing math, because consummation means you’re just another company liability.“Professional Skepticism” Till July 15, Dorothy Strelsin Theatre @ The Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex 312 W. 36th Street Tickets $15-18, Smarttix.com
For more information, visit ZootopiaTheatre.org.
An Insightful Look at What’s Happening on the New York Stage
Sunday, July 08, 2007
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
While Morrissey’s monster was spawned in November, James Rasheed’s monster in Professional Skepticism took all of 25 days in August to be born. Of course said monster, CPA rookie Paul (wonderful anti-villain Matthew J. Nichols), needs more than a little prodding to become a ghoul. He needs to be bitch-slapped, goaded, and ridiculed by associates Leo (Steve French), golden boy Greg (Wesley Thornton) and vampy Margaret (Britney Burgess) before growing fangs and stomping hooves.
Mousy, penny-pinching, meticulous and clingy, Paul is pegged immediately as the quintessential, if sympathetic jerk. As Paul, Nichols writhes in embarrassment, afflicted professionally by Leo, emotionally by Greg, and romantically by Margaret. As his reduction is carefully crafted by Rasheed, it becomes easy to predict his metamorphosis from sniveling to cunning, sheepish to bold. Yet, unlike his counterparts, Paul elevates the competition by never using artifice to accomplish their doom. Instead, he uses the same attributes that they lord over him against them: unfounded conceit and carelessness. It is a beautiful formula, one where he merely exposes their faults rather than invent them. Nichols does marginal slapstick with this role, but he uses the levity well. A careful dollop of humor smeared over his master plan to ruin his competitors’ careers is just the right amount to allow him to be the fine line between hero and villain.
The eclectic soundtrack by Andrew Papadeas, although not a part of the show that is referenced in dialogue, is sometimes used by Paul as a means to amuse and extend his position as an alright guy. He dances and prances as he plans. Unfortunately, these instances seem to violate the writer-actor code of creative license.
Rasheed spins an intriguing web of audits and frauds from what originally appears to be an ordinary yarn of he-saids and she- saids. As soon as the plot comes into fruition, much can be forgiven for the bland, life-as-an-accountant backdrop. Credit is due to the strength of Kareem Fahmy’s direction for extracting the whole spectrum of acting from the cast, from indifference to rage.
Although the cast is strong across the board, Steve French is especially marvelous as the ring-jerk Leo, concurrently revolting and likable. A classist and a racist, one cannot help but anticipate his next insulting jab, particularly since he delivers them with a booming tone that you can’t take completely seriously. He gets into character before the play’s inception, demonstrating emotional preparation while sifting through documents at his over-sized desk. Or, perhaps it’s a device to create the illusion of readiness. Either way, it works.
The set design by Andrew Lu is brilliant in the small space allotted by the Abingdon Theater, both cost and space effective. The over-sized desk denotes the importance of their profession, as does the many documents that cascade from a large folder on the ceiling unto the back wall. Pages are ripped from a large calendar that suspends from the ceiling as a deadline for an audit completion in August creeps close. Lu creates visual frenzy and desperation in a world often associated with order. It is refreshing.
All is fair in the pursuit of getting ahead, right? Not here. Partially based on Rasheed’s past experience as a CPA, Professional Skepticism is an insightful look at the consequences of too much ambition and not enough ethics. Said to be a commentary on contemporary American life, the ambition almost exists as a separate character, whispering in everyone’s ear, save Margaret, like a permissible Satan. Apart from a few quips about his undesirability, Margaret is a passive agent in Paul’s monstrosity, and perhaps only a casualty by default. It is ironic that all the male characters claim a subdivision of the Christian faith, but yet most certainly behave in an adverse manner to its teachings. Turn the other cheek and the first shall be last, and the last first don’t live here. But, as Paul says, he knows how to separate his professional life from his personal life, even if Rasheed’s point of view may be that not all ties should be severed. To its own detriment, there are no victors in this play, but it is more dramedy than tragedy. Whether that mimics reality or not does not deflect from the fact that such endings can be perceived as unsatisfying. Regardless of your position on the ending, the sum of everything that precedes it hits the spot.Through July 15th. Abingdon Theatre: 312 West 36th Street, NY NY 10018. $15-18 Tickets: 212-868-4444. http://www.smarttix.com/
June 29, 2007
Professional Skepticism by James Rasheed serves as a colonoscope of sorts, illuminating the inner bowels of a major accounting firm wherein lie the dark souls of individuals with about as much incorruptibility as any of the infamous corporate newsmakers of the past decade. As well, it displays the cutthroat competitive maneuverings of those obsessed with scaling the corporate ladder in an environment where not doing so is equal to death. But if you’re worried that this makes Rasheed’s play sound like something unwatchable without your Prozac, fear not: it’s a comedy (albeit, yes, a dark one). And Rasheed and the cast succeed in making this an enjoyable evening of darkness.
The pressure is on inside this high-profile accounting firm burdened with the task of completing a major audit in nearly record time and the junior staff is feeling the heat from above. Leo (Steve French) is put in charge of the audit. He is embittered, overworked, unhappily married, and his attitude shows this. He is also in danger of losing his job for a reason that quietly nags at him throughout the play. He delegates and dictates workload assignments to his more junior colleagues: Paul (Matthew J. Nichols) a nerdy, high-reaching, at times nutty staffer desperate for recognition from upper management; and Greg (Wesley Thornton), the brightest and youngest member on the team, though not necessarily naïve, who forms and breaks intimate friendships in order to maneuver himself higher in the company. The tensions in the relationships among these three, stoked by survivalist competitive thirsts, are put under greater strain given the weight of the pending deadline.
And then there’s Margaret (Britney Burgess), a flirtatious and sultry colleague from a different department who knows how to play the libidinous appetite of these success-driven men in a way that is both recreational and calculated for her benefit. However, as she moves lasciviously in and out of the action, we are not always sure what her (i.e., Rasheed’s) intentions are; and her motives and desires with one particular auditor are confusing at times, especially given the resolution of their relationship.
The professional skepticism (which in auditing terms means, roughly, to have an open and reasonably questioning mind in the face of discrepancies) incumbent upon these auditors is at risk of being compromised due to the aforementioned stresses. Although, for one of the auditors, skepticism turns to suspicion when the audit turns up some funny numbers. What he will do with this discovery is where the story starts taking significant shape.
The cast of four turn in fine performances, each bringing to life, with specific clarity, the multi-dimensional characters that Rasheed has created. Credit should also go to director Kareem Fahmy for a solid job staging and finessing the relationships among these players and building the story to where it needs to go.
It should be noted that this is the inaugural production for the brand new Zootopia Theatre Company; however, they make no beginner’s mistakes here. In fact, it is as solid a production as one could hope to find in the world of independent theater. Andrew Lu’s set design, Scott Bolman’s lighting, and the work of the rest of the creative team all come together to fully realize the world of the play and make the most of the wonderfully intimate performing space afforded them.
Off Off Online
July 1, 2007
by Adrienne Cea
Co-artistic directors Britney Burgess and Matthew Nichols founded Zootopia Theater Company with the belief that “art should remove the boundaries and reflect the human animal,” and what better way to show a person’s animalistic nature than to put him in competition with another.
Television has thrived on the dramatic premise that when a group of people working toward a shared goal are forced to co-exist in a small space, an individual’s worst instincts will always prevail. In James Rasheed’s dynamic dark comedy, Professional Skepticism, we meet four frighteningly ambitious accountants with their sights set on becoming a partner in a prestigious South Carolina firm.
Set designer Andrew Lu has given new meaning to the phrase “paper trail,” creating a string of enlarged Xeroxed balance sheets spilling from a giant manila folder hanging from the ceiling and connecting to a paper collage covering the entire back wall of the theater. A calendar suspended from the ceiling by a string of paper clips counts down the days until a big audit is due for a major client and personal friend of the company.
An explosive, bitter senior accountant named Leo (Steve French) is overseeing this audit with his two-man team of newly hired staff accountants, Paul (Matthew Nichols) and Greg (Wesley Thorton). Leo has good reason to be bitter; both his underlings have passed the dreaded certified public accountant exam on their first try, whereas Leo has been struggling with the last section for some time. (So difficult is this test that accountants are given up to three years to pass it.) To cover up for his own insecurities, Leo is constantly trying to instill new ones in co-workers, ruining office morale and hindering work conditions.
Because Leo is high-strung, he drives his colleagues crazy, and the result is a group of paranoid, scheming, plotting characters, all of whom have been stripped of their likability. Senior accountant Margaret (Britney Burgess) comes off as the most sympathetic, being the only woman working in this male-dominated world, but even she has a manipulative side, using her sex to manipulate her drooling co-workers. Greg is sympathetic in the beginning for his attempts to bond with the office outcast, Paul, until his true reasons for doing so are revealed.
In his role as the company whipping boy, and his clueless, buffoonish nature (he’s prone to bursting into silly little boogies when he thinks no one is watching), Paul has all the makings of a sympathetic character. But the story’s moral center hinges on the fact that he is not. Professional Skepticism shows the ways in which intense competition can corrupt even the most unlikely of characters. Early in the audit, Paul shows no signs of being an aggressive, manipulative man, and yet those qualities exist inside of him, erupting like lava from a volcano when he is pushed to his breaking point.
But although they are not likable, the characters are all extremely entertaining to watch and so over-the-top that you find yourself drawn to them and their outrageous, unapologetic attempts to destroy one another. Bridges are being burned left and right, each character becomes an island unto himself or herself, and all are trying desperately to deceive themselves into believing they are better off this way.
Still, the heaviest moment in Professional Skepticism is a character-driven scene near the story’s climactic ending. All four accountants rush into their shared office after a major revelation threatens their livelihoods. After pointing fingers and hurling accusations in an earth-shattering screaming match, they wear themselves out and stand there, staring at one another, perhaps realizing for the first time how utterly alone they really are.
New York debut for “Professional Skepticism.”
By Koen Machielse
From June 28 to July 15, Zootopia Theatre Company will present the New York premiere of “Professional Skepticism,” a dark comedy by James Rasheed, which has had very successful productions in Boston and South Carolina. The play centers on four auditors at a Big Five CPA firm and their daily struggle to survive while swimming with sharks. An audit scandal threatens to change these characters into headline-making personalities. Rasheed’s tale of office intrigue is surprisingly funny, intense, and timely.
Written before scandals enveloped Enron, Worldcom and Arthur Anderson, the play has assumed new stature in light of these events. Boston critics have applauded the play’s sharp, funny dialogue and how it presents quantitative issues with such clarity that even mathematically-challenged audience members can feel as smart as the sharpest pinstripe CPA.
The Boston Globe wrote, “If you thought accountants lived lives as gray as their double-entry numbers, then James Rasheed’s hilarious new play ‘Professional Skepticism’ ought to correct your (understandable) miscalculation…. The playwright speaks with rare authority and insight as well as mathematically precise shafts of wit…. Rasheed sets forth the basic issues of a corporate audit with such clarity and succinctness that even the mathematically challenged can understand them. His dialogue is sharp and funny and the dramatic situation he depicts has a universality that speaks to any viewer.”
The play is being presented here by Zootopia Theatre Company as its inaugural production.
“Professional Skepticism” was Brandeis University’s Herbert and Beigel New Play Premiere and won the 2000-2001 Harold and Mimi Steinberg Prize for Best Original Play. It was published in “New Playwrights: The Best Plays Of 2002” (Smith and Krause).
Before earning a Master’s degree in playwriting from Brandeis University in 1999, author James Rasheed established a successful career in accounting, first as an auditor for a Big Eight accounting firm and then as a controller of a medical corporation. His “August Flight,” a symbolic, metaphoric dream play, received a full production at Clemson University and was its entry in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. His last play, “Mama Mamie’s Departure,” is a dark Southern comedy about the infighting among three elderly Southern sisters during their 100-year old mother’s death. “Professional Skepticism” and “Mama Mamie’s Departure” have had staged readings at Urban Stages in NYC. “Professional Skepticism” also had a staged reading at ART in Cambridge, MA.
“Professional Skepticism” received its first professional production as a world premiere at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater on Cape Cod, MA. Its productions include a national tour in 2004 presented by South Carolina Repertory Company that included stops at Riverrun Theatre Co. of Madison, IN, Clemson University, South Carolina Repertory Company in Hilton Head Island, SC; and Actors’ Workshop Proscenium Stage, Boston. It was presented again in 2006 by Centre Stage South Carolina. The play has been used in course work on business ethics in several colleges and has provoked speaking engagements on business ethics for its author, who just turned 40 and works as a bank auditor in his “day job.”
Recently named a “talent to watch” by NYtheatre.com, director Kareem Fahmy hails from Sherbrooke, Quebec and has directed nearly twenty productions in the U.S. and Canada. His New York directing credits include the world premiere of “A First Class Man” at the 45th St. Theatre, “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid,” “Lion in the Streets,” “Curse of the Starving Class,” “The Way to Begin,” “On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco” and “Drums in the Night.” Fahmy is a graduate of Columbia University ‘s MFA Directing program, where he studied under Anne Bogart.
The cast includes Britney Burgess, Steve French and Matthew J. Nichols. Production stage manager is Nilou Safinya. Set design is by Andrew Lu, lighting design is by Scott Bolman, and costume design is by Anne K. Wood.Performances are June 28 to July 15, 2007 at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, 312 West 36th Street, NYC. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm; Saturday matinees July 7 and 14 at 2:00 pm. Ticket prices are $15 in advance and $18 at the door. The box office number is 212-868-4444 and online ticketing is available at www.smarttix.com
Professional Skepticism is an insightful and incisive look at business ethics and cutthroat office politics in a regional office of a Big Five CPA firm
July 10, 2007
Professional Skepticism is a terrific play receiving a fine, fully-realized if cramped production in a tiny theater. I can’t recommend it more highly. It’s topical, engaging and suspenseful, very well-written, well-cast, well-directed and well-acted. It deserves to be picked up for an extended run. I only wish I’d seen it earlier so I could tell more people about it.
Written by James Rasheed, a former auditor for a Big Eight accounting firm, it concerns a team of auditors working against a very tight deadline to complete an audit of one of the Charleston (South Carolina) office’s biggest clients. It deals with the pressures they’re under and their infighting as they strive to climb the corporate ladder, satisfy their bosses and the client, keep their asses covered and wrestle with their professional ethics – including the need to maintain the professional skepticism of the title. In addition to being curious and moderately suspicious, an independent auditor is obliged to be objective and scrupulous, and to avoid even any appearance of conflict of interest. This becomes difficult when some of the numbers they’re reviewing don’t pass the smell test.
The play was written before the accounting scandals of the last few years exposed fraud at several major corporations and destroyed one accounting firm. So it was prescient, and it can’t be more timely. CPA lingo is used liberally throughout, but it is completely accessible. Having a business or financial background is helpful but not required to understand the issues, feel the tension and appreciate the craft. It wasn’t necessary to be involved in real estate to appreciate “Glengarry Glen Ross” to which it is comparable. I’m not aware of another stage depiction of such a seething cauldron of an internecine business environment since Mamet’s masterpiece.
The plot is especially well thought out and multi-threaded, with several interesting and surprising twists. Rasheed takes us into the bowels of corporate audit work, which requires hungry young professionals to work as a team in tight quarters, while each has a personal agenda which can often include sabotaging a co-worker in order to rise.
Leo (Steven French) is the audit team manager who is as interested in dominating his juniors as he is in Margaret (Britney Burgess) his sultry peer who seems to be gaining favor with Luther, the unseen head of the office. Luther is an overbearing, meddling presence even though he doesn’t appear on stage. Leo is a classic carrot-and-stick manager. He teases his underlings with invitations to play golf at his club and threatens demotions or worse when they chafe under his demands for extended hours of tedious work.
Paul (Matthew J. Nichols) and Greg (Wesley Thornton) are the striving juniors working on Leo’s audit and subject to his abuse. They are allied in their resentment of Leo, but they are also rivals for the attention of higher-ups. An invitation to have lunch with Luther would be a form of special recognition.
Overshadowing their daily grind and the pressure of the client’s looming deadline is the announcement that their firm is about to merge with another accounting firm which has a large office in Charleston. Who will survive the consolidation, who will be promoted and who will be “de-selected” are the overriding questions on their minds. In anticipation of that competition, visibility in the office and relationships with clients become important political assets.
Leo is vulnerable. Though he’s supervising the audit, he has not yet passed the last section of the state CPA exam, making him ineligible to be named a manager. Paul has already passed all sections, but his scores were just above the threshold. He is obsequious and nerdy, but his work is thorough. To enhance his visibility, he has volunteered to give two presentations on current topics to others in the office. The first is on accounting rules (FASBs). The second will be on fraud.
Greg is the newest and least experienced team member. When his test scores are among the highest in the state, he gets the invitation to have lunch with Luther. To both Leo’s and Paul’s dismay, Greg is now the rising star. The fact that he’s black only enhances his chances of surviving the merger. But he also has a liability – he went on a date with one of the client’s employees, a possible breach of professional ethics.
Margaret is a manager of another audit team, and she uses her position as well as her allure to tempt, taunt, tease and manipulate Leo and Greg. She dismisses Paul. Despite being married, Leo has had and continues to be interested. Greg is flattered that Margaret pays attention professionally and flirts with him as well.
The heat in the cauldron is turned up when the announcement is made that the office will move into the other firm’s building. Any mistake, professional, political or personal could now prove fatal to anyone’s career. Seemingly casual office banter can be, and is, turned into a political weapon when it’s repeated as a serious criticism of a co-worker. A hallway conversation between two superiors or an intercepted phone call can have a major impact on someone’s career, even if the information exchanged isn’t true.
The sinewy paths the characters follow are filled with interesting developments and a few legitimate surprises. While some of these raise questions, most ring true as realistic. Who is on whose side? Who’s an ally? Who’s a backstabber? Who will survive? Who will take advantage of someone else’s weakness?
All aspects of the production are very well done. The set is realistic. Direction is solid. The casting is excellent. All the actors inhabit their characters fully and comfortably. The performances could benefit from a little polishing, and the script might be tightened in a few places, but this is a play that should be seen, especially by anyone involved in a profession or considering becoming involved in a profession that demands ethical behavior. Don’t they all?
Hurry to see Professional Skepticism if you can. It’s scheduled to close this Sunday. If NY theatergoers are lucky, it will be extended or picked up for a longer run.