Looking For A Pharmaceutical Fix To Workplace Ennui In ‘RX’

In today’s world, it’s pretty damn hard to be happy, and especially so if you happen to hate your job. So it’s difficult to imagine many modern day workers who would not hold some sympathy for Meena Pierotti, the depressed protagonist of RX, a charming dark comedy by Kate Fodor which first premiered in 2012. 

Boca Stage is currently offering up a winning production of this light anti-capitalist fare, a thought-provoking satire of the pharmaceutical industry and of our relentless culture of compulsory productivity. 

Meena, a former prose poet, is so dissatisfied by her dull corporate job as the managing editor of a publication on piggeries that she frequently finds herself stealing away from her desk to the nearby department store so that she can cry in peace. So, she enrolls in a clinical trial for a new drug specifically designed to combatand capitalize on—the newfound “disease” of workplace depression: SP-925 (pronounced nine to five—and yes, prepare for Dolly Parton jokes!)

Witty dialogue wrings the concept for all its worth, with some of the show’s best jokes coming from manically enthusiastic marketing executive Alison as she delivers a pitch for the project, which will allegedly turn “listless and unproductive” employees into enthusiastic worker bees.

It’s an idea as absurd and laugh out loud funny as it is chillingly plausible, especially given the increasingly precarious mental health of modern Americans and the documented ruthlessness of anyone looking to make a buck and unafraid to take advantage of others to get it. 

Not to oversimplify a complex issue, but in contemplating what percentage of the many Americans who are on medications for their mental health were driven to it by an exploitative corporate culture, I found myself remembering a striking line from the poem Folder by Nina Puro:

If your body won’t calm itself down and get back to work, they’ll give you pills
for that

The richer and whiter you are the better they get.

In fact, SP 925, which Alison plans to market as “Thriveon,” is specifically aimed at workers making $65,000 a year or more, who will have insurance that can pay for it.

“It costs two billion dollars to develop a drug. You have to be able to sell it to someone,” the doctor charged with following Meena’s progress on SP-925 wryly explains. 

But it turns out that Dr. Phillip Gray, is almost as dissatisfied with his wage slavery as Meena is with hers. While she waits for the drug’s effects to kick in, Meena begins to bond with the formerly idealistic physician over the course of her visits, a plot thread that eventually develops into a full on love story between the two.

Their unexpected connection is one I’m not sure I would have seen coming if I hadn’t glanced at a few plot summaries beforehand, but one that added real stakes to the story when, just as the two’s bond begins to blossom, Meena’s prescription seems to kick in and her personality changes dramatically. 

As Meena, actress Elizabeth Price nails her character’s transformation from brittle and overwhelmed workhorse to hyper efficient employee, while Timothy Mark Davis holds his own as Dr. Gray, one of the straighter characters in this wickedly weird world. 

Laura Trunbull also made a striking impression as Frances, the dotty old lady who Meena bonds with after running into her on one of her department store crying jags, as did Jim Gibbons as eccentric Einstein wannabe Ed. But it may have been Janice Hamilton who stole the show as Alison, particularly during a scene near the end of the play when her confident character finally begins to unravel. 

As far as the production goes, a crisp set by Dustin Hamilton and costumes by Alberto Arroyo make for a visually compelling scenescape, though the frequent set changes made especially the first act of the production feel a little overlong despite its frequent laugh lines.

RX’s script perhaps shined most in the specificity, originality, and boldness of its humor, with fodder for jokes coming from everything from foot fetishes to shit-eating pigs to African children with river blindness. 

Ultimately, though, for all its laughs, the show struck me as a little tonally uneven, with some of the less believable and more slapstick twists seemingly at odds with the serious nature of some of what is explored and the more down to earth relationship scenes. 

The show also undercut some of its satirical edge with the sentimentality of its love story and a happy ending made possible mostly by a monetary deus ex machina, entirely neglecting the systemic factors at play in binding many workers to jobs that they can scarcely stand. 

Still, I suppose that finding the courage to embrace meaningful passions and throw yourself into true love is as good of an answer to the moral bankruptcy of much of modern life as any. In the end, I was intrigued and impressed by this imperfect and original story, which I’m glad got to see the light of stage this season. You could do far worse than prescribing yourself a visit to RX before it closes up this February 6. 

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