Search and Destroy

Steep Theatre Company

at the Chopin Theatre

By Brian Nemtusak

It’s an uncertain time. Feverish economic growth fueled largely by speculation has bottomed out. The smart and easy money alike have gotten out of the market, leaving only desperate chumps and stupid sharks scrambling to reap or recoup their fortunes. A two-term president of monolithic popularity has been succeeded by a cipher with the name of a shrub. And though a host of euphemisms have cropped up to dilute the panic, no one can deny the party’s over.

Of course this could also describe the late 80s, when Howard Korder’s Search and Destroy is set, and early 90s, when it was first produced–which may be the reason for Steep Theatre’s revival. The climate of anxiety is in many ways the same. One reason David Salle’s 1995 film version doesn’t work is that, against the backdrop of a boom economy, the machinations of the story’s cut-rate movers and shakers seem merely comic. Korder’s effects rely on fear.

The dread underlying the American dream dominates Korder’s plays. Boys’ Life (1988), perhaps his best-known work, is a sub-Mamet exercise essentially concerned with how fear, self-hatred, and cruelty motivate mainstream heterosexual mating. The Hollow Lands (2000) shows how the conquest of the continent was motivated by horror of the unknown and the desire for self-reinvention ruthlessly and ruinously pursued. Search and Destroy (1990) finds contemporary American ambition much the same, less brutal but more unbalanced, bent on personal transformation through the acquisition of wealth and power and driven largely by sheer fear of failure.

Not that the material isn’t funny; Korder has a deft comic touch and a knack for bleakly hilarious dialogue. But the laughs are profoundly empty. It’s a kind of gallows satire ultimately unamused by its own jokes and hinting at suppressed hysteria. Steep Theatre’s production wisely plays this tension to the hilt: the play’s silent frenzy builds steadily from the opening moments to the sudden violence of the climax. The crescendo is very deliberately executed, sometimes overly so, and as a result the pace is occasionally too slow. But that’s a quibble more than made up for by the cast’s focus and control.

Search and Destroy tells the story of Martin Merkheimer, a down-on-his-luck entrepreneur facing a costly divorce and costlier IRS audit. Over $100,000 in debt, he’s reduced to watching late-night infomercials, developing an obsession with self-help guru Dr. Waxling, author of the inspirational novel Daniel Strong–“a mind-expanding tale of a young man who, having killed his father, discovers the pathway to hope, power, and material gain.” Completely sold on Waxling’s vaguely Dianetics-like philosophy–even, like the novel’s protagonist, taking a vow of celibacy–Martin hopes to find financial salvation by purchasing the rights to Daniel Strong and turning it into a blockbuster motion picture.

For most of the first act Martin chases Waxling around the country to no avail. When he finally gets to make his pitch, it’s phrased in the doctor’s own platitudes–“Everything up to this moment is the past”–and succeeds, but Martin is dismissed because he doesn’t have enough money. Waxling not only won’t deal, he implies that Martin is less than a man, summed up in a slight using the terminology of his system: “You are not a threat.” Humiliated, Martin resolves to get the dough somehow and throws in his lot with mysterious businessman Kim, also a Waxling fan. The second act traces their train wreck of a botched coke deal to its bloody conclusion.

Much of Search and Destroy’s dialogue is couched in the amoral parables of Waxling’s belief system, which conflates Nietzsche with “greed is good” apologies for self-interest. A key mantra–“We set the standards, and we judge ourselves accordingly”–translates the central conceit of Beyond Good and Evil into pop-psych vernacular. Another–“There’s nothing to be forgiven for, and everything is possible”–similarly paraphrases the Hassan i Sabah line famously quoted by the German philosopher (among others). It recurs as cokehead political campaign manager Lee, to whom Kim and Martin hope to peddle what turns out to be third-rate blow, racks his brains for a slogan, unable to come up with anything for the voters to believe in. “Believe the possibilities,” offers Martin. When Lee remarks that it sounds great but means nothing, it’s impossible to tell whether that’s criticism or compliment.

Korder’s greatest strength is generally acknowledged to be his way with language, which firmly establishes his characters. But this play inverts that strategy: individual cadences remain distinct, but almost everyone delivers versions of the same catchphrases and vacuous formulations. In this way Korder depicts a culture in thrall to the very language of “success,” let alone the genuine article and its trappings: Martin, Kim, and Waxling all attempt to cure themselves with the same jargon that afflicts them.

These three roles are well portrayed. As Waxling, Alex Gualino perfectly conveys the brittle, bitter weariness of a “top dog” relentlessly fighting to maintain dominance. Like most cult leaders, he’s trapped by his success at selling a philosophy he doesn’t really buy–but that seems poetic justice since its only real tenet mirrors his only real goal: self-aggrandizement. As star student Martin, Peter Moore beautifully combines conscienceless innocence with a monstrous resilience.

And as Kim, the play’s most disturbing character, Sergi Bosch just about carries the problematic second act. Unlike Martin’s madness, driven by shame and overcompensation in the timeless Horatio Alger-Jay Gatsby manner (further explored in The Hollow Lands), Kim’s insanity is entirely the product of contemporary alpha-male fantasies. Already a success, he has no reason to adopt Waxling’s system or join in Martin’s quest. Eventually it becomes clear that what excites him is the amphetamine ferocity of Waxling’s prescribed void of proscriptions. Hoping to inspire Martin he declaims, “Here’s a killer,” invoking Waxling’s words to describe the persona to which he aspires. “Here’s a man who has no fear.” Bosch is riveting, oozing a formidable worldly wherewithal whose underpinning of crazed blood lust emerges only gradually.

Despite the excellent work of these three and a good supporting cast–David Hoke, Alex Gillmor, Todd Braxton Pate, and Anastasia Webb all have nice turns–the production isn’t without problems, most stemming from lapses in the script, especially in the second act. The dialogue and plot dynamics are impressive, but Korder’s handling of action is amateurish. The pivotal drug deal, police pull over, and gunfight are less than plausible, and the play’s momentum falters a little with each scene. The twist ending is structurally satisfying but preposterous. And though Joshua Polster’s direction is generally strong, its occasional sluggishness excepted, an atrociously bad call mars the show’s finish: a misleading scenery change keeps us waiting for an epilogue that never comes.

These flaws aside, this is an excellent, intelligent handling of difficult material. Whether one subscribes to Korder’s breezily excoriating view of the American soul is another matter, but in the context of the current “economic downturn” and G.W.’s doublethink pronouncements, Search and Destroy is more resonant than it has been since, well, the bad old days of George I. i