‘Webster’s Bitch’ at Keegan Theatre: How language plays tricks on us

‘Webster’s Bitch’ at Keegan Theatre: How language plays tricks on us

There’s a certain symmetry to the fact that a newish play bearing a title some outlets have deemed too spicy to print or say is about the malleable nature of language itself.

“Webster’s Bitch,” a rich if not yet fully conjugated workplace dramedy from playwright Jacqueline Bircher, had its world premiere at Connecticut’s Playhouse on Park last year and now arrives at the Keegan Theatre. It follows two generations of lexicographers (plus one fidgety visitor) through an eventful evening at the headquarters of Webster’s Dictionary. As the office opens, its two junior staffers are on deadline to complete their weekly online update. “New definitions every Friday!” one of them chirps, which, to certain constituencies — stressed-out dictionary-revisers, anyone over the age of 40 — might sound like a threat.

The incident that escalates ordinary ticking-clock stress to existential calamity is a hot-mic gaffe by Webster’s editor in chief, caught on video at a Yale University conference referring to his long-serving deputy as “my bitch.”

Some 40 miles down Interstate 95, in Webster’s Stamford offices — the sticky-noted, card-catalogued, page-proof-wallpapered set is by Matthew J. Keenan and Cindy Landrum Jacobs — the shock waves ripple up through the generations. It’s Extremely Online Gen Z-er Ellie (impish Irene Hamilton), making a nuisance of herself while waiting for big sister Gwen (Fabiolla Da Silva) to finish work and take her for drinks, who spots the video trending on Twitter. (The play is set in 2019, allowing Bircher to avoid both the pandemic’s upheaval of white-collar culture and Elon Musk’s erosion of that once-mighty social media platform.) Ellie shares the bombshell with Gwen and Nick (Andrés F. Roa), the office’s other millennial, both of whom panic over how Joyce, their superior and the subject of that careless remark, will respond.

Gwen, the more aggrieved of the pair, is sharp enough to recognize that this scandal threatens not only the superannuated career of their boss’s boss — appropriately named Frank — but also the credibility of their entire enterprise. That’s because Webster’s definition of the offending word, unlike those proffered by competitors like the Oxford English Dictionary, elides the sense of mastery in which the loose-lipped Frank used it. When Joyce (a wry Sheri S. Herren) learns from the youngs about what went down, she puts her duties ahead of her feelings and orders Gwen and Nick to start revising their definition of the b-word, pronto.

The versatility of that contested epithet has always been part of its appeal. It has the monosyllabic blunt-force effect of all the best curses, but so many contextual variations that — to cite one example not referenced in Bircher’s script — the 1971 Rolling Stones song “Bitch” wouldn’t even make a list of the band’s most unabashedly sexist recordings, while Meredith Brooks’s 1997 hit “Bitch” embraces and reclaims the word in its gendered-insult sense.

Bircher’s writing is at its most perceptive, and Da Silva’s and Roa’s performances at their most persuasive, when Gwen and Nick are competing over who can compile more definitions and usages of the word the fastest, and cite 10 examples for each. More than once, Gwen is compelled to point out that it was Nick, not her, who handled the contested word’s most recent revision. After a one-on-one meeting with Joyce doesn’t go her way, Gwen launches into a monologue elucidating how her competence and work ethic are taken for granted by her better-paid peers. It would be more effective still if Da Silva’s performance as Gwen didn’t seem to be foreshadowing that eruption from the instant we meet her.

Herren’s Joyce is a more nuanced and dimensional character, but she’s also getting more help from Bircher’s script: Only Joyce really gets to surprise us, revealing how a woman of a prior generation found a way to survive the same indignities to which she now subjects Gwen. Abuse begets abuse, tragically.

Like poor Gwen, Bircher’s play is ambitious in a way that makes success more elusive. What at first looks to be a simple workplace farce morphs into something more curious and observant, particularly once Frank (Timothy H. Lynch) makes his entrance a full hour into the show, long after anyone who didn’t spot his name in the program will have assumed he shall, like Godot, remain forever delayed. Lynch is nuanced enough to make Frank a memorably self-loathing villain instead of a one-note stooge, which ultimately makes the show more rewarding as a drama than as comedy.

Paradoxically, it’s the way Bircher dips a toe into several rich pools of inquiry without ever diving into any one of them that left me convinced that she has yet to mine fully the potential of her own premise. Because office politics in general are a bitch. Salary opacity? You bet. Managerial gaslighting? The most virulent and ruinous example of all.

At one point, Gwen boasts about the record number of usages/contexts she documented for a single word: More than 120 for “go.” Go, in the imperative usage, is still my advice regarding “Webster’s Bitch,” though, as with Gwen’s and Nick’s spilling-over inboxes, Bircher may yet discover more meanings through the alchemy of revision.

Webster’s Bitch, through May 5 at the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW, Washington. About 95 minutes with no intermission. keegantheatre.com.

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