Victory Gardens Theater

I think it had been about two weeks since I saw my last salesman play when I caught Victory Gardens Theater’s production of Roger Rueff’s Hospitality Suite, a salesman play that differs from the classics in the genre in one major respect–it’s boring.

While plays like Death of a Salesman and The Rainmaker use a heightened reality to explore issues of faith and hope in a wicked capitalist society, Rueff’s play addresses similar issues by using a lowered reality–a world in which average characters are presented in unremarkable situations, a world in which art does not imitate life so much as it imitates wallpaper.

Phil and Larry have come to the hospitality suite of a Wichita Holiday Inn with the greenhorn Bob to persuade a potential client to buy their corporation’s lubricants. Phil is a world-weary, enervated old pro who’s in the throes of a divorce and buys Penthouse for the articles. Larry is a foul-mouthed pepper pot who likes to talk about his pragmatic philosophy and women’s rear ends. Bob is the wild card, a devout, glassy-eyed Christian whose urge to proselytize forces Larry and Phil to reexamine their values and beliefs as human beings and as salesmen.

The first act and then some is largely exposition, setting out each character’s history and beliefs. Much of it is overobviously written in a question-and-answer format: Bob assaults Phil and Larry with questions that reveal their characters. Bob sees no calling higher than that of serving Jesus and is more interested in converting customers than in selling them lube. Larry sees man’s role on earth in terms of functions and can’t see any functions more important than buying and selling. “Leave God out of this,” he says at one point. “We are talking about something bigger than God.” The moral middle ground is held by Phil, who, now that his marriage is in shambles, sees things more spiritually than he used to and, though he doesn’t want to at first, winds up talking about life and death and God. A reformed boozer, Phil is back on the bottle by play’s end. (Playwright’s maxim 407: “Introduce a reformed alcoholic in act one, and he must take a drink in act two.”)

The play turns in act two when Bob has a golden opportunity to pitch the potential client but winds up squandering his chance by preaching God’s word instead of the company’s. He defends himself by saying that bringing up company business in a religious discussion would be a betrayal of his beliefs. Phil and Larry tell him he’s just another salesman–God is the product he’s hawking.

There are some good lines in the play and some clever dialogue. But a basically plotless play that hinges solely on the power of its polemics better have some really interesting characters or something original to say, or audience members will start nodding off. But these three unpleasant bores are the sort that sit next to you on long airplane flights, engage you in conversation about PCs, and insist you call them by the name proudly displayed on their name tags. Neither sympathetic nor compellingly unsympathetic, these indifferent characters evoke little but an indifferent reaction.

So it’s up to the power of Rueff’s ideas. But the author is treading on perilously familiar ground. Whether all of us are salesmen in our own way is a dead horse that’s been thoroughly beaten by David Mamet, Arthur Miller, Sinclair Lewis, and company. And there’s nothing new in exploring how men equate their sexual potency with their ability to succeed in the marketplace, except that here it’s a little more blatantly set out than usual. Larry, chief ogler and misogynist, talks about the hard-on he gets from discussing the size of the lubricant account. The divorcing Phil is now as ambivalent about sex as he is about sales. And the prudish Bob, who doesn’t dare look at any woman besides his wife, lacks the cojones to be a good salesman. In the second act–when there’s much talk of life, death, and God–the conversation smacks less of intellectual discourse than of a list of meaningful topics.

The best moments in Victory Gardens’ professional but by no means world-beating production are offered by Craig Spidle (Larry), who makes all he can of the play’s best lines and prowls about the stage like a possessed grizzly bear. Dennis Zacek (Phil) gives us a believable sense of weariness and maturity but doesn’t convey the sense that he was ever the deal-making, glad-handing guy the script suggests he was. Timothy Hendrickson gives us the best possible rendition of Bob, the play’s least satisfying character, who seems to have been conceived as a generic born-again rather than a three-dimensional character.

The most successful and funniest part of the production is Bill Bartelt’s fabulous set, which brilliantly captures all the generic wall art, air-conditioning units, and light fixtures of a dull Holiday Inn. Unfortunately, the set mirrors the play all too well.