In a 1926 essay called “How Should One Read a Book?” Virginia Woolf describes the difference between what she calls “actual reading” and “after reading.” While we are actively, actually engrossed in a book, says Woolf, we are alert, sympathetic, and easily distracted: “One’s judgment is suspended, for one does not know what is coming next. Surprise, admiration, boredom, interest, succeed each other … The friction of reading and the emotion of reading beat up too much dust to let us find clear answers.” But then, there is the after reading. “Suddenly,” says Woolf, as one is going about one’s day, “tying a shoe, perhaps … the whole book floats to the top of the mind complete … The book takes on a definite shape; it becomes a castle, a cowshed, a gothic ruin, as the case may be. Now one can think of the book as a whole, and the book as a whole is different.”
A play like Max Wolf Friedlich’s Job is specifically, methodically crafted to beat up emotional dust during the actual reading (or watching). It starts and ends with a gun in the white-knuckled grip of one of its characters, and in between are 80 minutes of pretty much pure tension — anxiety that gradually thickens, along with the plot, into dread and revulsion. In his playwright’s notes at the front of the script, Friedlich insists, “This is a period piece.” I mean, sure; the play takes place in January 2020, and considering that his characters are howling on the heath during an already brutal political-sociological-psychological shitstorm, it seems fair not to saddle them with constantly discussing COVID, too. But the play is not really an exercise in period but in genre. Job is a horror piece — a Black Mirror episode with the sci-fi dialed down (because the horrors are real) and the punchy, cynical, HBO-ready dialogue dialed up. It’s a slick, cleverly crafted drop-tower ride, and while you’re trapped inside, it succeeds at turning your stomach.
“Trapped” isn’t a dig: Friedlich wants you to feel that way. In the intimate Soho Playhouse, Scott Penner’s neutral-chic psychiatrist’s-office set sits slightly elevated and slightly cramped inside the hard lines of a Crate & Barrel–esque area rug below and a floating rectangle of crown molding above. Around this beige island, a moat of darkness. On either side of the space, vertical banks of lights in garish, sickly colors flare up intermittently in Mextly Couzin’s sinister lighting design, then click out again, rendering the innocuous office now nightmarish, now normal. Those clicks are audible, too. Sound designers Jessie Char and Maxwell Neely-Cohen snap us in and out of rapid, gruesome audio sequences that feel like the doomiest kind of scrolling: Click. An engine revving like a buzz saw. Click. Pornographic moaning. Click. Something, someone, howling in pain.
And then there’s that gun. Jane (Sydney Lemmon, as rigid and electrified as a third rail) is holding it, and she’s pointing it at Lloyd, played by the excellent, absolutely at ease Peter Friedman. (You may know him as Frank Vernon on Succession.) “Please realize what is happening here,” says Lloyd. “You are holding me hostage.” Jane, in her 20s, works in “user care” at Faceb— sorry, at an unnamed tech behemoth in Northern California, and she has been put on leave after a video of her having a truly scary breakdown at work has gone viral. (Despite evidence that it may in fact be her very real and horrifying job that’s destroying her, she is maniacally desperate to get back to it.) Lloyd, in his 60s, is a therapist, and Jane has arrived at his office for a company-mandated session. His assessment will determine whether she can return to work.
Let the intergenerational power games begin! In a way, Job is a kind of Gen-Z entry in the tradition of tense, breathless, power-struggle-between-an-older-man-and-a-younger-woman plays, like David Mamet’s Oleanna and David Harrower’s Blackbird. But given the tectonic shifts in, well, everything, between the then of those plays and the now of Job, Friedlich is, almost inevitably, both participating in a convention and violently flipping it off. Think you know who’s crazy? Think you know where your sympathies lie? Try again! And again. And — gasp! — again! Behind the gun and the ever-increasing ghoulishness, Job is, in essence, a parable of generational disempowerment and rage. Lloyd, the boomer, is well-meaning, kind, liberal, and blinkered. And he has total power over the future — or lack thereof — of the Gen-Zer, Jane, who’s hyperarticulate, jaded, ready with a Twitter-feud answer for everything, and hovering between fanaticism and crushing despair.
“It’s the hippies who wrote the strict housing laws to make it so nobody can build low-income apartments next to their cutesy rowhouses,” Jane rattles off at Ritalin speed (though, as she says, she’s “more of Xanax girlie.”) “You villainize us because tech bros and hippies are at war. And we are winning … Hippies were white kids from the suburbs who came out here to take drugs and fuck with impunity and now they’re pissed something productive is replacing their 50-year-long drum circle … The legacy of the ’60s is an obsession with aesthetics. To be antiwar, you had to wear a tie-dye shirt and grow your hair out, and so now, today, I’m not allowed to have ‘good politics’ and wear Lululemon.”
Like almost everything that gallops out of Jane’s mouth, it’s zingy, caustic, and not necessarily inaccurate (if not necessarily as nuanced as she thinks). It’s also pronounced with a dizzyingly contradictory combo of aggressive self-assurance and on-the-edge-of-a-panic-attack anxiety. Her nervy combativeness overwhelms the room. Lloyd is on the back foot almost continuously, and it’s a credit to the shared zippiness of text and direction (by Michael Herwitz) and to the alert, flexible performances of the play’s two actors that this dynamic doesn’t start to wear. Friedlich’s text itself can, every so often, slip into a talky cul-de-sac on its way to the eventual stomach-turning climax that is its ultimate goal, but Lemmon and Friedman never let the pressure out of the room. They keep the string of the play taut throughout. Friedman is especially delightful to watch because he just seems so damn effortless. As in his role in Succession (which Lemmon also whisked through as one of Kendall’s unfortunate girlfriends), Friedman has a natural ease and appeal, a sense that he’s never pushing too hard: It makes him inherently likable, which is money in the bank for an actor in a role that’s at best deeply ambiguous and at worst maybe a monster.
But on that front, no more. Job isn’t the kind of play in which spoilers don’t really matter. It’s built for the big drop, and to find out exactly what hellish depths it plummets to, you have to see it. There’s no doubt that in the Woolfian actual reading, the play is affecting and effective. Like a good TV crime drama, it’s manipulative in a value-neutral sense: It knows the position it wants to put you in, and it puts you there. Whether you, like me, may find the play shrinking somewhat in the after reading, who can say? But at a little distance from Job, I find myself increasingly disheartened by its definite shape, which feels like a very neatly constructed black hole. “There is no alternative, no future,” reads a stage direction near the play’s end. Clever nihilism may be the form assumed by beaten, starved idealism, but in the end, it still only feeds itself.
Job is at the SoHo Playhouse through October 8.