Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers

First published in 1779 as a Christian hymn with words written by John Newton (whose experience working on slave ships led to his support for abolitionism), “Amazing Grace” has been a part of religious and popular culture for a long, long time. The words “I once was lost but now am found” can have surprising relevance to everyday events. One need look no further than a recent article by George Pierpoint for BBC News Online entitled “Reddit Sleuth Identifies Car Part, Leading to Hit-and-Run Arrest” to see how minor miracles happen every day.

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In 2017, a surprising discovery was cause for celebration at the Frisian Film Archive in Leeuwarden, Netherlands. Jurjen Enzing was working on a digitization project involving some extremely flammable nitrate film stock. But when he started examining one movie, instead of bucolic images of the Frisian landscape dotted with cattle, a famous face appeared on the monitors. It was comedian Stan Laurel wearing a prisoner’s costume in 1924’s Detained (a short silent film made before Laurel teamed up with Oliver Hardy). The footage Enzing was reviewing contained a segment that film historians had long assumed to be lost.

In “The Hanging Scene,” Laurel gets an extreme extended neck when he accidentally falls head first into the gallows while trying to escape from a prison. After restoration, the entire movie (which was first screened at the Bristol Slapstick Festival in January 2018) was also shown during the 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Watching Detained 94 years after its initial release reminds viewers not only of Laurel’s comic genius, but also the strong influence he had on actor Dick Van Dyke.

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Have you ever learned a linguistic skill that requires constant attention to detail yet is often misunderstood by the professionals whose careers depend on it? Have you ever been stuck in a toxic office environment where your co-workers spend most of their time fantasizing about the artistic careers they wish they had? Have you ever been subjected to mixed messages coming from a frustrated, middle-aged middle manager torn between his familial responsibilities and his employer’s demands? Have you ever had to remain at a job you hated because you needed to pay your bills? Do you occasionally feel as if your life is suffocating because of a whole lot of “coulda, woulda, shoulda”?

As part of its Sandbox Series for New Plays, the San Francisco Playhouse is presenting the world premiere of Washed Up on the Potomac, a new play by Lynn Rosen that has been directed by José Zayas. The action takes place at an ad agency in the nation’s capital which handles direct mail campaigns and produces sales catalogs for its clients. The unhappy result is that its proofreading staff (located in the building’s basement) is bored stiff as it peruses technical writing that insults their intelligence.

To make matters worse, the weather outside is sweltering, the building’s air conditioning is on overdrive, management is in an uproar because a critical and costly word has been misspelled in an important client’s catalog, and a woman’s body (which may belong to Joyce — a former employee who mysteriously vanished into thin air a year ago) has washed up on the banks of the Potomac River. The three proofreaders halfheartedly trying to concentrate on their work are:

Mark (Vincent Randazzo), an aspiring writer who is always identifying potential characters and ideas for short stories he would love to write, but never really manages to follow through on his moments of inspiration. Instead, he likes to talk big to cover up his shortcomings while dreaming about the day when he’ll be able to do more than just review other people’s writing for spelling errors, context, and punctuation. Unfortunately, Mark has developed a crush on one of his co-workers.

Vincent Randazzo (Mark) and Jessica Bates (Kate) in a scene 
 from Washed Up on the Potomac (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Kate (Jessica Bates), a female rocker who keeps telling everyone how great her music is, even though she rarely gets to perform in front of an attentive audience. Twenty years ago, she was an aspiring songwriter. Today, she’s stuck in a basement proofreading ad copy.

Jessica Bates portrays an aspiring female rocker in 
 Washed Up on the Potomac (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Sherri (Melissa Quine), a young woman who is a devout Christian and a bit of a prude. The sole support of her aging, hyper-religious mother, Sherri may dream of visiting Paris or enjoying some kind of adventure that could free her from her mundane life, but her mother needs to be taken to Mass on a regular basis and keeps pestering Sherri to join her at church for a study group devoted to the Book of Revelation. Essentially, this is a woman who takes pride in her work but has no social life. In order to deal with the building’s excessive air conditioning, Sherri often wears a lightweight down jacket to work.

Melissa Quine appears as Sherri, a frustrated proofreader, in a scene 
 from Washed Up on the Potomac (Photo by: Ken Levin)

In his program note, San Francisco Playhouse’s artistic director, Bill English, writes:

“Many of us remember that catastrophic event that helped us or drove us to turn a corner in our lives, the crisis whose jolt of adrenaline pushed us out of our comfort zone into a new and terrifying landscape. Sherri reaches up out of despair by clinging to the possibility that the presumably washed-up Joyce has instead run away to create a brilliant and original life. In her imagination (with the help of the young novelist), she builds her own mythology of rebirth.”
Melissa Quine portrays Sherri, a frustrated introvert in 
 Washed Up on the Potomac (Photo by: Ken Levin)

“At first glance these office workers may seem like sitcom stereotypes or humans who have buried themselves inside well-worn roles, but Lynn Rosen’s muscular language endows them with a heightened ability to give voice to their fears and dreams. The playwright applies her singular brand of heightened language to the lives of cubicle-dwellers in the bowels of a proofreading office, making them all into poets, turning office banter into powerful verse elevating their lives. Washed Up on the Potomac gives its dreamers eloquent and potent language to take us with them on their journey.”

Max Forman-Mullin portrays an office worker who loves origami 
 in Washed Up on the Potomac (Photo by: Ken Levin)

In many ways, proofreading (like medical transcription) is becoming an obsolete skill. It’s not that the need for it no longer exists — it’s primarily because many people in managerial positions no longer understand its importance as a critical tool for maintaining accuracy, a mark of professionalism, and a legal safety net which (despite the availability of Errors and Omissions insurance) can save a publisher from cost overruns and potential litigation.

A much more intangible issue at play in Rosen’s drama is the difference between how introverts and extroverts behave in the workplace. Extroverts like Mark and Kate are desperate for attention and frequently cannot stop talking about themselves. Introverts like Sherri often have a limited range of social skills and can become exhausted from overexposure to extroverts who will not (or cannot) shut their mouths.

The minor character of “That Guy” (Max Forman-Mullin), a nondescript office employee who spends most of his time hidden behind a wall with a mottled glass panel, provides an important key to understanding Rosen’s play. Like Sherri, he is an introvert: a kind, fairly bland man with a passion for origami who can see and appreciate Sherri’s inner beauty with an acuity neither Mark nor Kate can possibly imagine. Why? Because that kind of sensitivity requires an ability to look at and empathize with others as opposed to being obsessed with one’s self.

Jessica Bates (Kate), Cole Alexander Smith (Giorgio), and Vincent
 Randazzo (Mark) in a scene from Washed Up on the Potomac
 (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Mark and Kate represent a specific type of person who talks a good act but rarely delivers a finished product. Their manager, Giorgio (Cole Alexander Smith), is the kind of person who had to put aside his dreams in order to deal with the challenges of real life. By contrast, Sherri is the one character who has nothing (and everything) to lose but decides to strike out on her own in an act of daring that requires a lot more courage than endlessly talking about what she would like to do.

The opening night performance of Washed Up on the Potomac left me in a quandary as I tried to identify what left me feeling unsatisfied by Rosen’s play. It was certainly not the performance by Melissa Quine (who stepped into the role of Sherri at the very last minute and appeared onstage with a script in hand). Quine and the rest of the ensemble did a solid job of bringing a handful of well-defined characters to life. Nor was there anything lacking in the stage direction by José Zayas, the set design by Heather Kenyon, Madeline Berger’s costumes, or Sarah Witsch’s sound design.

It took me several days to realize that Rosen’s drama deals with a great deal of Sherri’s inner thoughts and conversations with herself (as opposed to Mark and Kate’s utter lack of introspection). As a result, Washed Up on the Potomac may have been crafted for the wrong genre. How so? There are some situations wherein the printed word is far more potent than the spoken word (words read off a page may have greater impact than words said on a stage). My hunch is that Rosen’s dramedy might have delivered much more effective storytelling if conceived as a short story or graphic novel.

Performances of Washed Up on the Potomac continue through September 1 at the Custom Made Theatre (click here for tickets).

Originally published at on August 21, 2018.

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