Northlight Theatre

The Organic Theater under Stuart Gordon had enormous success with its series of slice-of-life plays that blended drama with documentary detail. Gordon and his actors conducted Wrigley Field field trips to research die-hard Cubs fans for Bleacher Bums, and haunted local emergency rooms for E/R. The joke was they’d just keep going up Clark Street, producing Dry Cleaner, Greasy Spoon, Garbage Truck . . .

The documentary technique certainly has its advantages. It’s hard to invent characters as colorful and offbeat as those you find in real life. Just have actors imitate these figures, put them in true-to-life situations, and you’ve got a show. E/R, for instance, wasn’t great drama by any means, but it included a stubborn man who defied the symptoms of a heart attack, a father who had just beaten his son unconscious, and a man with a light bulb up his rectum — all based on actual people. The show ran for three years.

Now Richard Fire, who helped write E/R and Bleacher Bums, has joined with June Shellene (previously best known as a composer and singer) to script a semidocumentary look at the people who trade pork bellies, deutsche marks, and coffee beans. Despite a superior production by Northlight Theatre, it doesn’t quite work.

The problem is the problem of the genre: the show is episodic, a collection of stories loosely connected, with no single theme to tie them together. E/R had much the same problem and managed to overcome it with humor and human interest. But Fire and Shellene have more serious aspirations and can’t go that route. Their intention (like David Mamet’s in Glengarry Glen Ross) seems to be to say something about greed and the frailty of the human conscience, about people trapped in tough jobs that reveal the ugly underside of the free enterprise system. Unfortunately, their blunt, naturalistic dialogue doesn’t have the gritty eloquence or the sly undercurrents of Mamet’s, and their ideas are inserted abruptly, like footnotes. “There’s got to be a balance … between freedom and greed,” says one trader during a philosophical barroom conversation. Val, a cocaine-snorting clerk with an eye for up-and-coming traders, blithely puts money before everything else. “Look what you’re getting,” she tells a trader tempted by an illegal arrangement. “What do you care? It’s going to be worth it to you isn’t it?”

Remarks like this keep bobbing to the surface, but the episodic structure prevents them from accumulating into the powerful point of view that Mamet achieved in his play. The conversations are realistic and believable, but they never rise above the “will he or won’t he’?” suspense formula used by so many TV shows.

That’s not to say the show is a failure. Dealing may not be greater than the sum of its parts, but each of those parts is engrossing, primarily because the cast members make the characters so believable. Everyone has a problem. John (Kevin Dunn) has overextended himself financially, and will lose his place on the exchange if he doesn’t come up with $20,000 by tomorrow. He even tries to bully his wife (Barbara Robertson), a chic, self-confident art dealer, into writing him a check. Ronnie (Tim Halligan) must decide if he’s going to kick back a percentage of his commissions to a wealthy client ,who demands it. Gary (Don Franklin) hopes to start trading his own account soon, despite his misgivings about the way the commodities exchange works. Bob (B.J. Jones), a slimy ex-trader disgraced by a clumsy cover-up, has kicked his cocaine habit and is trying to make a comeback, but he’s trying to generate the money he needs by selling cocaine. Val (Holly Fulger) is sinking pretty deep into a cocaine habit of her own, but her sex appeal helps her find wealthy traders who keep her well supplied. Sid (Ron Dean), her uncle, is a veteran trader troubled by a rebellious stomach, while George (Gary Houston) has back spasms whenever he starts to lose money.

All these actors give fine performances. (Dunn and. Fulger in particular seem to have learned a lot as regulars on the lack and Mike show on ABC.) Michael Maggio enhances their efforts by staging each segment of this play with the brisk appeal of a good anecdote. Under his direction, the cast members have formed a smooth, ensemble that can generate the effortless naturalism this type of play needs to be effective.

In fact, taken on its own terms, Dealing is very successful. Fire and Shellene have created clearly defined characters, placed them in interesting conflicts, and tied the action together with a slender theme. The performances are lucid, the direction is superb, and Linda Buchanan’s set lets the action shift ingeniously from the trading pits to an office or a bar. It’s true, Dealing doesn’t go much deeper than a good TV show, and it doesn’t provide much insight into the arcane world of the commodities exchange, but it doesn’t sell you short either.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.