Once upon a time, way back in 1980, there was no World Wide Web, no Nintendo Wii, no GTA of any Roman numeral. State-of-the-art software was chained to primitive, constraining hardware, and video games were so archaic that you had to actually type in written commands to do something as rudimentary as opening a door. Today's weapons-laden avatars have only to stand before a virtual door armed with the correct, hard-won key, and the thing will magically swing open for them.
Anthony Clarvoe's Pick Up Ax, now through March 15, 2009 at Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View, is set in the Silicon Valley of that ancient era. Thanks to the smart direction of Ray Renati, a clever set by Ron Gasparinetti and very strong performances by all three actors, Pick Up Ax is the best play I've seen this year.
As the play opens to the heroic power chords of "Foreplay/Long Time" by Boston, Brian (Ben Fisher) and Keith (Alan Kaiser) are crowded into Brian's toy- and computer-crammed office. Keith has taken up residence there because he's filled his office with junk. Keith is the company's resident savant, the "franchise" as Brian calls him, who can commune all day long with ones and zeros but wilts in the face of contact with other human beings. Brian, who discovered Keith one day in a video-game arcade racking up insanely high scores, is the company's president. As the stage lights come up he's on the phone, screaming at a chip supplier who inexplicably refuses to take his money.
The situation that Clarvoe presents to us, as well as much of the subsequent plot that unwinds throughout the rest of the play, mirrors the historical events of those days, when big-time suppliers of key components made sweetheart deals with preferred customers to effectively squeeze smaller players out of business. Indeed, the care Clarvoe has taken to get his facts right is one of the many pleasures of Pick Up Ax, but his play goes far beyond documentary. Despite all the spot-on references to chips and sensors and software, this is a play about how humans work rather than how machines do.
We know Brian, we've met lots of people like him before. He's the guy who had the smarts, skills and personality to rise pretty far in his world, but not all the way to the top. His problem? He cares. He was drawn to Keith not only for his value as a potential meal ticket but also for Keith's humanity. Somehow, despite being a good guy with laudable instincts, the company that he and Keith founded on a shoestring now employs scores of workers, which is one of the main reasons why Fisher's Brian is desperate to save their company. It sounds odd to say this at a moment in history when the world's economies are shuddering from the effects of wanton greed, but you get the feeling that if only Brian had exhibited a bit more self-interest, his company would not be in this predicament. Fisher beautifully captures this toxic mix of healthy ambition and good intentions.
Keith is less familiar to us. We've heard about people like this, we may have even worked in the same cube farm with them, but we probably never got very close. Keith is the kind of guy who is simply not wired to let a lot of people into his private world. Brian is his only friend, the only person he really trusts to reveal his burden of genius. And what a glimpse of genius we get. Kaiser's Keith is a gangly man-child, all elbows and knees, whose social skills are near zero. His appetite for absorbing data and cranking out code is close to infinite. When he's hot, he can type faster than he can tell you what he's doing. When he's blocked, he retreats to pot and Dungeons and Dragons. Keith may be the brains of the outfit, he may even, as Brian remarks, "run a mean dungeon," but Brian holds his reigns, and that relationship seems to suit each party just fine.
Into their world enters Mick, a fast-talking, old-school smoothy who has been following their company's misfortunes in the press. After a hilarious brainstorming session (though a drama, Pick Up Ax is often very funny), Mick suggests some novel business strategies of the offer-they-can't-refuse variety. Brian, whose board of directors is breathing down his neck as the company's chip crisis deepens, makes his deal with the devil and agrees to let Mick "talk" to his stubborn supplier. Champlin's street-smart Mick is all confidence and patience (Brian, and especially Keith, would have been turned off if all Mick had to offer them was smarm), with flashes of anger that suggest a deep reservoir of menace below his impeccably tailored surface. This, we think, is not going to turn out well for our boys.
Beyond the tight plot and its numerous twists, the insider nerd-speak and terrific dialogue -- Brian: Extortion is technically speaking illegal. Mick: A hostile person could give it that construction -- one of the most effective aspects of this production is the way in which the characters evolve during the two hours we spend with them. In particular, I was impressed by the way Kaiser managed to give his character an arc without changing the nature of who Keith is. He lets Keith be Keith, unafraid to appear childish and vulnerable even as his insatiable brain is processing the swarm of new data known as Mick.
Pick Up Ax runs through March 15, 2009. For tickets and information, visit thepear.org.