Despite Problematic Plot THE FUNDAMENTALS Has Promise

Despite Problematic Plot THE FUNDAMENTALS Has Promise

(l-r) Armando Riesco and Alana Arenas. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Review: THE FUNDAMENTALS at Steppenwolf Theatre

By Erin Shea Brady

We all make theater for different reasons, but most of us, in our way, aim to start a conversation. Often, our plays ask the audience a crucial question: “What would you do?” or “What will you do?” Though neither script nor production are without their flaws, Erika Sheffer’s THE FUNDAMENTALS presents us with several ethical dilemmas worth contemplating, many of which are rooted in the culture and psychology of the “workplace”.

The play takes place in the basement of a fancy New York hotel — more specifically, the housekeeping stock/breakroom. Immediately, it stinks of “corporate”. Stellan (Caroline Neff) is a new hire, an actor trying to make ends meet, who takes her front desk position for granted. Millie (Alana Arenas) works in housekeeping, though it’s obvious from the very beginning that she is capable of much more. We quickly learn that she has big ideas — and ambitions — regarding hotel management. Her husband, Lorenzo (Armando Riesco) works in maintenance, and while Millie characteristically makes the most of her situation, Lorenzo hates his job. Audrey Francis, as the boss we all love to hate, and Alan Wilder, the supervisor who prefers comfort to advancement, round out the cast.

This script digs uniquely deep into workplace culture, particularly regarding the complex relationships between coworkers. If you tally it up, some people may spend more time sharing space with the lady who works at the next cubicle than they do their loved ones. In this tight-knit ensemble, we see a rich variety of complex dynamics, and as is per usual at Steppenwolf, it’s the depth of these relationships that keeps us invested.

Beyond the interesting character work, Sheffer’s plot is problematic. What begins as a “slice of life” sort of play devolves into plot twists and big drama, unearned by the actors and the text. So much of what resonates is in the exploration of conflicting value systems. I wish that Sheffer had pursued a subtler evolution of where those value systems lead, rather than trying for more systematic conflict, which seems disingenuous and contrived.

Ultimately, the question is posed: “What would you do to get ahead?” Each character, in their way, is asked: How much can you stomach that goes against your system of values? What wins: ego or family? As characters begin to sell each other out, I appreciate the neutrality of the play’s position on who is right and who is wrong. Much is left for the audience to debate, and each perspective is well-represented.

This play has promise. On a large scale, it unpacks the dysfunction of a corporate workplace and makes extremely important points about classism, discrimination and privilege. We see a woman recognizing her worth and fighting for the chance to flourish in an upper level position. It succeeds in prompting conversations for the train ride home. But there’s a messiness that life has and this play doesn’t. With less plot and more character, it has the potential to make a larger impact next time around.

THE FUNDAMENTELS runs through December 23rd  in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted. Tickets ($20 – $89) are available through Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or

About author

Erin Shea Brady

Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.