Hate the game, not the player

Play द सिस्टम is a funny, frustrating, and tense look at women and workplace politics

Photos: MANISH ZING PANDEY

Theresa Rebeck’s 1992 script What We’re Up Against has been translated by Priyankar and directed by Akanchha Karki of Katha Ghera as Play द सिस्टम . The play shows a not uncommon experience of female employees in offices in Nepal.Namita is a young talented architect newly hired at a prestigious firm who is exasperated by lazy colleagues who hide their incompetence behind workplace politics. 

Played with panache by Ranjana Bhattarai, Namita is eager to work on projects, but her boss Sailesh (Eelum Dixit) is a scotch-swigging manipulative control freak who does not assign her anything because he is threatened by her competence. 

Namita is consigned to a converted storage room, while Pankaj Basyal (Rishikesh Basyal) has a much better location for his desk despite being even newer than Namita. Basyal is a sloppy grifter who makes pompous, long-winded presentations and curries favour with Sailesh by keeping the whiskey flowing. 

The office is involved in a big project to restore a mall in Lalitpur. Basyal is on the project, as is Biswas (Suraj Malla). Biswas understands what is going on behind the scenes between fellow staffers and is concerned about a piping problem that is delaying the project. 

The fifth person in the office is Chahana (Roshani Syangbo) who is not much of an architect but keeps her job by playing a ditzy simpering damsel who seconds anything the men say.

Play the system

The deadline for the mall is looming and the only person with the solution is Namita. Sick of being underestimated and overlooked, she brings a design supposedly by Basyal to Sailesh, who initially okays it. But after finding out it was hers, he trashes it. 

Sailesh is incensed at Namita’s trick, and throws her out before putting Chahana on the project instead. Yet Namita is following Sailesh’s advice: to get work, you must show initiative. 

So Namita takes up a project Chahana has just about abandoned to modify a court building. Her pitch to the team is imaginative and focused on meeting the client’s demands. 

Sailesh uses his status and corporate doublespeak to dominate the meeting, and bully Namita. Humiliated, Namita confronts Chahana who sided with Sailesh in the meeting and the two have a row.

Brilliantly acted, the scenes are a realistic portrayal of office hierarchy with gender politics also thrown in that gets in the way of getting work done. People want credit but do not want to work for it. 

The men cannot stand Namita because they all know she is a better architect. They describe her as difficult to work with and whiney. But they are fine with docile, unthreatening Chahana. However, she too is scared of the notion that she might soon have to play sidekick to Namita.  

Play the system
Photo: TUPHAN JUNG THAPA

In a final act of rebellion, Namita ‘plays the system’ of egos to push a flawed design through Chahana to Sailesh, letting Chahana take credit. As Sailesh presents the imperfect plan to the firm’s founder, Biswas has found out what happened and comes to Namita’s office to talk, only to find her packing up, expecting to soon be fired. The two agree to talk about the piping problem over dinner. 

The play ends abruptly right here, leaving us guessing what happens to Namita. Bristling with swear-words, this is a tense, angry play, but has a light-hearted tone.

The message seems to be that women can either be like Chahana, not getting in anyone’s way to keep her job. They will keep her, but have to squander her talent and self respect. Maybe Chahana was once competent too, but is now too jaded and resigned to her fate.

Or, they can be like Namita. Confident and competent, and hence perceived as a threat. Many men do not like admitting that another man is better in their profession. But when it comes to women, their ego is hurt and they seek petty ways to get their own back. 

Sailesh refers to Namita as a “ball-crusher” (the word sounds pithier in Nepali). But if they looked around it would be clear why they are getting left behind: they drink too much, are easily flattered, and have too much time to backbite. They engage in many of the same behaviours that they may jeer at as feminine, such as gossip and hysteria. 

One scene in particular demonstrates this hypocrisy. Sailesh and Basyal are drinking in Sailesh’s office, a den of toxic masculinity. They make abusive remarks about Namita, but not once in the play do the two actually do any work. 

Play the system

Suddenly Namita invades the scene and Basyal cowers pathetically in his chair, not meeting her eye. Namita pours herself some of the whiskey (gasp) and downs it straight before threatening to go to the founder.  

While Biswas is smart enough to figure out what is going on, he does not  have the courage to stand up to Sailesh, or ask Namita for the solution, or “do the right thing”. 

Rebeck’s script came out in 1992, and 32 years later it still transcends time and space, and is a relatable and realistic depiction of the workplace anywhere. This a universal, perennial issue, and the play can also be taken as a call to maturity in gender relations.  

The play runs smooth as it uses one big set throughout, lighting up where the action takes place. In the centre is the presentation table and to the left and right are Chahana and Namita’s offices. Overlooking everything up a staircase is Sailesh’s office.

The original script is in English, and it adapts well to a sort of Nepali-English hybrid dialogue that would feel natural to the Nepali Times readership. Rebeck curses quite liberally in the original English script, but the adaptation is a bit too generously sprinkled with colloquial Nepali swear words. It certainly has shock value and brings laughs. 

Kausi Theater, Lagan

Every day except Tuesday till 15 July

Time:  5:15PM,  Matinee show on Saturdays at 1PM

Front row: Rs1,000 

General tickets: Rs500

Contact: 9861078876

Vishad Onta

writer