Washington Post Review: WEBSTER’S BITCH

A play with a crude title shows 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.

Bircher’s writing is at its most perceptive, and [Fabiolla Da Silva’s and Andrés F. 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.

[Sheri S. 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.

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.