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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Amy Herzog’s ‘The Norman Conquests’ explores the struggles of jobseekers

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You’re hired. That is the beginning and end of the drawn-out, belabored job search in Amy Herzog’s sly dramedy, which premiered in its bicoastal premiere last month at Playwrights Horizons, following a well-regarded run at the Signature Center in New York. This is hard to take. Temping never shakes out as its title implies. The goal is to be hired. It’s one of many jobs requiring mopey inertia.

At 12:30 p.m. on the first day, a pretentious, nervy woman, fresh out of Stanford Graduate School of Business, rattles off her resume without number. She considers each project in turn; the one offered at least nominally is the least challenging. (She drinks brandy and sends messages with pencils on her phone.) She comes in three hours late and comes out on time. She rates with the temp agency’s people. She sends some dry graphics and a proposal to her boss (Howard Korder, long overdue for a starring role). It’s business as usual.

Trying to sway her boss (Karl Glusman) that she ought to have the job, Harriet ends up treating her like a crazed employee. She wonders aloud why he expects her to conform to his standards of superficiality. (“Have you heard of taste?” asks William Keenan, playing his boss.) She lets loose with kvetching about her dull daytime career: “A stripper like me works hard for the service industry and wants to be treated like a regular employee.” (Actually, the kind of stripper with a vagina.) At some point, she convinces herself that it’s fine to just do what she can do, rather than the role she’s been assigned. She leaves.

The premise is recycled; the job searching is repetitious. Herzog, however, shows us smarts, social awareness and insight along with the challenges of contemporary work. Temping is driven by the relationships — the one between the woman and her boss, the one between the boss and the receptionist — that affect the overall process. The impossibility of institutional change is presented in this sense. At the moment of inquiry, it’s easy to feel that it’s the woman we ought to be worrying about — rather than the person at the reception desk in the middle of a workforce dead end.

Herzog has a few suggestions. First, there are the people hired to do the grunt work: a car wash employee who repossesses a car full of clothes. Then there’s the woman who makes the deliveries, who arrives with a framed photo and a mustached “Ask Elizabeth” sign and only never decides to eat at any restaurant. Herzog’s genius is in portraying workplace burnout. A job-triage nurse ends up becoming an overburdened office co-worker; a consultant must absorb the slights, the indignities and failures of her clients. Perhaps the key is good oratory: When her boss rejects her model, Harriet uses quotes from men like Dietrich and Rauschenberg to make her point. Successful efforts to convince a boss that their ideas are brilliant and on point are made with a fine blend of formal declamation and meandering narrative-shaping. “I don’t like the fucking idea of them saying, ‘It’s your job,’ ” Harriet says. “I like when they tell me, ‘It’s time to do this.’ ”

Herzog ushers her workers into the daylight with acerbic intimations of sweatshop exploitation. “A Korean woman pulls a beer cart,” she notes. “They call their office ‘The Lobby’ because the bathrooms are inaccessible to all but jocks. It’s their policy to strictly limit access to the bathroom, as a matter of health, to keep them healthy.”

Herzog’s prickly quips pass the time with energy. (“That’s not just a line from a play,” she observes. “That’s the writer’s monologue about our desk.”) The speech is part demonstration and part confirmation. Temping is one job where, in the words of the lady at the end of your drinks-with-drawal memo, you’re hired.

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