Disconnect – Play Review

Set in a collection agency branch located in Chennai, India, this remarkable play is written by Anupama Chandrasekhar and directed by Rick Lombardo.  It is bold, brash, funny, tragic and deeply moving and insightful.  The three call center employees, Imran Sheikh (as Ross), Sharone Sayegh (as Vidya), and Ray Singh (as Giri), have done a superb job of bringing to life the intense stress of working in the pressure cooker call center environment.  They must deal not only with the pressure to meet their target numbers, but the excitement when they get promise of a payment, and the cost of empathizing with their American clients who have missed their credit card payments.  Their boss, Rajesh Bose (as Avinash), coaches them that their job is simply to stay focused, make a connection, and get these spend thrift Americans, struggling in the recession, to start making payments.  The goal is to forge a bond only to get them to pay, not to get overly attached; “They are different people from us”, Avinash says.

The company, True Blue, faces competition from the Philippines, for outsourced jobs.  Shrill, wired manager Devon Ahmed (as Jyothi) demotes Avinash, who is not meeting his quotas, from head of a “New York team” to an “Illinois team”.  She tells him he should not be unhappy as that would show his resistance to change.  “We need happy people, so we have happy customers; that is why we have smileys everywhere”, she says.  For these semi-human-machines often expected to work ten hour night shifts, with short, timed breaks, their family life and social life also take a toll.   Their clients and customers on the other side of the globe, are rising after a night’s rest to the bitter daytime reality of their dwindling economic situation, only to be pestered by people with strange accents, who have taken away their jobs, and are now demanding to set up payment plans.  When the pressure becomes unbearable for people on either side of the planet, or when real attachment is forged, the consequences are disastrous.

BPO, or Business Process Outsourcing, has elevated the status of many people in various regions of the world.  But this change comes with the costs and the play shows the bitter call center reality.  Often these call centers are located in busy, crowded cities, with small, confined, windowless office environments, where employees talk on top of each other and relieve stress by relying on coffee, coca cola, and pranks they play on each other.   Various stereotypes about age, gender, skin color, and cultural differences are callously thrown about.

This is a thought provoking, not-to-miss play.  For anyone interested in cultural issues and in examining the cost of technology, change, and globalization, there is a lot to digest.  We can see the broader impact of Business Process Outsourcing, reorganization, and organizational competition on people who are often pawns in a larger game; both the employees and the customers.   Complements to Yoon Bae, the Scenic Designer, for creating the mood and atmosphere of a call center.  In “Disconnect”, Director Rick Lombardo and the stage management team, Laxmi Kumaran and Stephanie Schliemann, have done a marvelous job of bringing to life the complex reality of the connected world.  The play is currently running at the San Jose Repertory Theater and tickets can be purchased at www.sjrep.com .

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