Monday, March 10, 2014

Made in America, Dobama Theatre

First, a confession: I love plays and movies about salespeople. It’s a small and arcane thematic niche, to be sure, but I’m all over any show that deals with people selling things to other people—whether it be siding salesmen in the flick Tin Men, William H. Macy’s car salesman in Fargo, or the den of nefarious realtors in Glengarry Glen Ross.

So maybe that’s why I really like Made in America by local playwright Joel Hammer, now at Dobama Theatre. This two-hander focuses relentlessly on a million dollar piping deal being negotiated for a huge government project.

The customer Barry meets with the sales person from one of the competing companies at a bar in a hotel. The twist is that the salesperson is an African-American woman named Esther, and she suggested the get-together at that location. Seeing that as an invitation of sorts, Barry quickly starts putting the moves on Esther, much to her apparent chagrin.

The banter continues in a semi-flirtatious way, but it’s clear that Barry holds all the cards. Esther is trying to nail down the contract after many months of effort. But Barry turns out to be a sleazebag who is after more than a lower price.

After this extended Act One scene in a bar, where drinks flow as fast as innuendoes, the play, um, climaxes in Esther’s hotel room where many secrets are revealed. Some involve the sourcing of products from overseas (thus, the title), which may be revealing to some.

Hammer’s overall conceit is clever and his dialogue mostly rings true on the surface. And director Scott Miller maintains the tension that is critical to the piece, bringing fine performances out of his actors: Hammer, who plays Barry and Colleen Longshaw as Esther.

But there is one glitch and one downright problem. During the entire hour-long first act, we never know what the negotiation is about. This is unfortunate since these details can add heft and verisimilitude to the dialogue. Plus, it’s interesting to learn the ins and outs of a different area of the world.

Hammer, the former artistic director of Dobama, plays the progressively drunk and drunker Barry well, avoiding the usual traps actors fall into when playing boozers. But that only means that Barry gets tiresome, as most drunks do after spending a few minutes with them. Longshaw nicely conveys Esther’s conflict as she tries to play along while nudging her potential customer towards a decision.

But more importantly, playwright Hammer eventually gets a bit too cute with the surprise twists and turns in the play’s second act. Each character in turn comes up with surprising revelations that initially seem to rock the other person. Then, emerging from their supposedly stunned reaction, the other person proceeds to explain why he or she saw that “revelation” coming and why he or she still has the upper hand. 

This back and forth calls into question the veracity of what we’re seeing, undercutting the drama. Of course, this may be Hammer’s message, that it’s all a game and there are no real winners. But the takeaway is less effective if neither person really has anything at stake.

Still, there is much to admire and enjoy in Made in America. And, you know, it’s about a salesperson! So cool.

Made in America
Through April 6 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396.

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