Review: The Memo (Thought for Food)

Office politics clash with a newfangled business lingo in The Memo playing at Unit 102 Theatre in Toronto

Anyone familiar with the language of business knows that it can get a little… dramatic. Corporate lingo has this amazing way of charging forward impressively — driving results to generate insights for maximum value, and so on — without actually saying anything.

Vaclav Havel’s hilarious 1965 comedy The Memo, in a new production by Thought for Food theatre company at Unit 102 Theatre, addresses the nonsense of office jargon, and though utterly absurd, it’s spot on. Desk jockeys be warned, however: this ain’t “The Office.” The Memo is a darker comedy than that, and it kind of hurts.

The play opens with Andrew Gross (Paul Rivers), director of an unnamed “mega-agency,” spluttering his way through a memo written in an unknown gobbledygook. As it turns out, the gibberish he can’t seem to wrap his mouth around (let alone his brain) is the new official company language. It’s called Ptydepe, and it proves to be his undoing.

From there the play spirals briskly into madness, and poor Gross with it. Overcome by the mad logic of Ptydepe — a language designed to improve upon the inefficiency of “normal”, “living” human language through the principle of superfluity — as well as conniving coworkers, his downfall is total.

As far as satires go, The Memo has a sharper edge than most, and twists a bit deeper into futility and spiritual despair. The playwright comes by his existential sensibility honestly; Havel wrote The Memo in 1965 in communist Czechoslovakia, where the power of bureaucracy was, if not more vivid, at least more secure and entrenched.

In his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel (who became the first president of Czechoslovakia) gives an example of a grocer who hangs a sign in his shop: “Workers of the world, unite!” Havel then wonders how the grocer would feel if instead he’d been given a sign that said, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.”

That fear wends its way through The Memo. Havel offers us a vision of workers whose sole preoccupation is protecting their own position within the company. It’s this dark undercurrent of self-preservation that gives the play its queasy brilliance.

But even though it grows out of bleakness, The Memo is laden with small, weird delights. The characters are quirkily recognizable, and their jaded power struggles and complicated dynamics are both funny and mesmerizing.

The actors ham it up to varying degrees. Comedic overacting is a tough trick, and some do better than others. Rivers brings a Conan O’Brien-style expressiveness to the Gross character (think: man-baby); Cara Pantalone is hilarious as an unhinged office functionary; and Michael Rinaldi carries many scenes without uttering a single word.

For me, the best part of this play is Thomas Gough as the Ptydepe professor. The veteran actor is pitch perfect in every sense: tone, gesture, and timing. Standing directly in front of the overhead projector, he cuts an ominous figure, well matched to his masterful performance.

Unit 102 is a cramped space, full of angles. The design takes good advantage of the odd shapes, though the experience must be quite different depending on where you sit. The set actually made me chuckle before the play even started. Comprised of carpeted polygons and thin plastic furniture, it really captures the purgatorial blandness of so many offices.

In such an intimate space, and with no curtain, we also get to watch the actors perform each scene change — an entertaining series of choreographies that feel loose but also contribute to the sense of a calcified social environment. It was in these moments that you could see the degree of thoughtful detail that went into this production.

I suspect this play will build momentum through the course of its run. This kind of comedy should feel dangerous; like a dervish, the closer it gets to spinning out of control, the better it is. For a play about the culture of control, The Memo is a wild one: as freshly funny as it was fifty years ago, and frighteningly just as relevant.


  • The Memo is playing until May 10 at Unit 102 Theatre (376 Dufferin Street).
  • Shows run Thursday through Sunday at 7:30pm.
  • Tickets are $25, available here or at 1-800-838-3006 through Brown Paper Tickets.

(Photo of The Memo ensemble by Sunny Kaura.)