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Originally published Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Richard Dresser's dark comedy "Below the Belt" opens at ACT

An interview with playwright Richard Dresser, whose "Below the Belt" opens at ACT Theatre on Thursday.

Special to The Seattle Times

Theater preview

"Below the Belt"

Opens at 7:30 tonight and ends June 21, ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle (206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).

Despite playwright Richard Dresser's upbeat and optimistic take on life, he can't shake the belief that deep within the male psyche are some pretty dark qualities, and all it takes is a dehumanizing workplace to bring them out. In his black comedy "Below the Belt" that opens this week at ACT, audiences have a chance to see just how poisonous a corporate environment can be, even when presented through Dresser's stylish, comedic language.

In an unnamed factory producing an unnamed product, three men jockey for position. Their strategies include back stabbing and verbal torture, their emotions are colored by jealousy, and they're out for revenge. Sound familiar? In Dresser's hands it's an amalgam of funny and fearsome.

Dresser did work in a factory as a youth — making thighs for G.I. Joe action figures. But not until he became a TV writer in Los Angeles did the idea for this play really take root: Put any man, no matter his personality, within a hierarchy and watch the scheming and competition.

Men will be men, as Dresser's characters exemplify. Asked who among political figures he might cast, without hesitation Dresser named Dick Cheney. "I'd love to go into rehearsals with him. He's a good model — smart, able to articulate, but spinning in his own orbit."

The isolation and alienation fostered by the impersonal workplace has long been a subject for theatrical attention, especially in hard times. "Below the Belt" premiered in 1995 at the prestigious Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky., when the economy was booming, and is even more pertinent today. Since then, it has been offered Off Broadway and in regional theaters. European audiences have been especially enthusiastic. In Germany alone there have been more than 40 productions.

Dresser speaks somewhat wistfully about the way theater is conducted in Europe. There state support provides a financial base for theater companies. European governments trust theater artists to do good work. Dresser says the subsidies make it possible for the theaters to spend more time in rehearsals, take chances on unproven works and keep plays in repertoire. There's a stability not present in this country.

Dresser, as are many in the arts community, is pleased with the nomination of commercial theater producer Rocco Landesman to head the National Endowment for the Arts. He's "a very smart, aggressive proponent of the arts. His big, successful personality will shake things up," says Dresser.

He views Seattle as a great theater city, one of a few that keeps its fine actors working. He's delighted with ACT's production of "Below the Belt." Not only does it feature Judd Hirsch — who was in the New York cast and whom Dresser describes as "terrific" — but it also stars John Procaccino and R. Hamilton Wright, two of Seattle's finest talents. Dresser also admires director Pam MacKinnon, with whom he's worked in the past. For Dresser, all the pieces have come together.

Up next for the playwright is a musical, "Red Sox Nation," scheduled to open in Cambridge, Mass., next May. It's about the curse of the Red Sox, which had more to do with the team's refusal, until 1959, to add African Americans to its roster than to the Babe Ruth jinx. Diane Paulus, whose Tony-nominated "Hair" is now playing in New York, will direct.

Nancy Worssam: nworssam@earthlink.net

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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