In a sweltering basement, the characters in Washed Up on the Potomac show up at work on an unseasonably hot day in October. Mark (Vincent Randazzo) arrives with sweaty armpits that stain his shirt. Kate (Jessica Bates) complains wryly, “It was so hot on the bus, my under-boobs were sweating.” Their boss Giorgio (Cole Alexander Smith) is generally a grumpy guy, and the heat isn’t improving his mood. But the weather doesn’t seem to be affecting Sherri (Melissa Quine) in quite the same way. She refuses to remove her puffy winter coat.
Sherri’s the first person we see in Lynn Rosen’s play (through Sept. 1, at The Custom Made Theatre). Having spent the night at the office, she lifts her head from the desk after experiencing a vivid bad dream. When she overhears Giorgio talking about a clerical error with That Guy (Max Forman-Mullin), Sherri begins to fret. Every character in the play works at an advertising agency. But as the head proofreader, she’ll take the blame for not correcting “oder” to “order” — someone’s idea of a copy-editing joke. Giorgio leaves That Guy’s office in search of Sherri, but she hides herself away in a corner. Her coat is like a suit of armor that shores up her defenses against nightmares and office politics. Yet even wrapped up tightly in that security blanket, Sherri is still a bundle of rattled nerves.
Everyone at the office daydreams about an alternate situation for themselves. They imagine about what could have been instead of living the lives they have, reading tepid ad copy over and over in a suffocating basement without air conditioning. Mark constantly jots down ideas for novels on Post-it notes, but he hasn’t gotten very far. He admits to Kate that it’s taken him three weeks to come up with four mediocre sentences. As for Kate, she dresses like Joan Jett but elongates her vowels the way that Molly Shannon does. On the outside, she’s a tough rocker chick — we hear her play the guitar and sing — but she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She won a songwriting contest once, and even wrote a song for Gladys Knight. But after her father died, Kate had a nervous breakdown. She doesn’t admit to it, but Mark finds anti-anxiety pills in her purse.
Rosen has created a collection of workplace oddballs based on her own experience as a proofreader. She captures all of the nuances that develop between coworkers — people who spend hours together in a confined space who aren’t friends, lovers, or family members. As the playwright accurately notices, those lines blur easily when the menial tasks of a dreary workday begin to pile up. Mark and Kate flirt with each other and take frequent coffee breaks. Everybody has snacks. That Guy interjects non-sequiturs into other people’s conversations. Giorgio dons Mark’s fedora when he’s not around and pretends that everyone likes him. Sherri’s the most awkward misfit of the bunch, the only one who can’t interpret social cues or keep up with the banter.
Despite only having five days to learn her role, Melissa Quine brought Sherri to life with sass and verve. The original lead dropped out of the production at the last minute, and the rest of the cast supported her throughout. In this performance, Quine endows Sherri with the same downturned mouth that Kristen Wiig often employs. The expression evokes a sea anemone whose tentacles retract when they perceive something that touches them as a possible threat. Sherri turns down her chin and her mouth recedes into her face every time someone makes her bristle. With that frowning expression, Quine communicates her unspoken hopes and aspirations.
Sherri’s mother is also a religious zealot who berates her daughter on the phone. To deflect those feelings of rage and inadequacy that her mother inspires, Sherri becomes obsessed with the disappearance of a former coworker. Joyce didn’t show up for work one morning at the agency. When a woman washes up on the shores of the Potomac River months later, the headlines advance the idea that the corpse belongs to Joyce. When the play begins, Sherri’s drowning in her dream sequence. Rosen has her identify with Joyce, but bends the frequently used metaphor of a dead girl to her own purposes. The arc of Sherri’s fate is similar to Joyce’s. She longs for freedom from the claustrophobic relationship with her mother and from her routine days behind a desk. What we don’t know is if she’ll walk away from her old life or drown herself in the river.
Washed Up on the Potomac, through Sept. 1, a San Francisco Playhouse production at The Custom Made Theatre, 533 Sutter St. $30; 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org/sfph