Dearth of a Salesman


Zack, the lonely toilet salesman at the heart of Slight Defect: A Desert Holiday, wears his hangdog expression like a badge of honor. It makes him just repellent enough to keep emotional complications at arm’s length, which is perfectly okay with him. Toilets are Zack’s life, and he’s too busy peddling the company’s top-line model to realize that, in a cruel twist of metaphors, his life is in the toilet.

Ten years in the making, sort of like the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra, Slight Defect: A Desert Holiday is the result of workshops and staged readings that have culminated in a ninety-minute play. As the sixth Ron Simonian piece staged by the Unicorn Theatre and the third directed by Sidonie Garrett, the show may have the maturity and the moral that earlier efforts lacked. And it seems audiences have been exposed to enough Farrelly brothers movies (There’s Something About Mary, et al.) to more heartily embrace gross-out effects adored by snot-nosed eighth-grade boys. But for maturity to endure and morals to stick, the play must have a deeper message than that which can be wrapped in a fortune cookie, and the production needs to allow that critical suspension of disbelief. Slight Defect rarely achieves this goal. Like the hair-gel made of cum in There’s Something About Mary, the effect is deceiving in its ickiness but gone by the next shampoo.

David Fritts does his damnedest to make Zack a contemporary Willy Loman. After his boss (Richard Alan Nichols in the first of three roles that he mostly shouts) nearly fires him for a botched toilet demonstration, Zack embarrasses himself by falling to his knees and pleading for redemption. He gets one more chance and sets a course for Las Vegas to snare the MGM Grand account. Along the way, he doesn’t so much pick up as become engulfed by a mysterious (is there any other kind?) hitchhiker (Matt Rapport) named Bucka who has no real place to go.

The uninvited guest browbeats Zack to climb “out of his box,” inspiring him to let his hair down and tell tales of unrequited lays and loves. Bucka gets dropped off at the Desert Holiday diner, and Zack continues to Vegas, where he must convince a CEO named Chuck that his toilets are the only toilets to buy. In an absurd twist, Chuck is a naturist, and Nichols plays him in the nude, discreetly hiding the full monty behind a desk and a newspaper. There probably is another metaphor in there somewhere, but the text is hard-pressed to pin one down. The scene concludes with an implied sight gag involving a 1-pound ham and Nichols’ bare ass that left a few patrons howling with laughter in a recent performance.

Kathleen Warfel shows up in the fourth scene as Leona, a strange hybrid of Blanche DuBois and Pamela Anderson. Simonian puts us back at Desert Holiday, where Leona picks Zack as her willing victim for what he thinks will be anonymous sex. The play takes a turn toward Twin Peaks when Leona and Zack retreat to her apartment, which has been decorated for a prom circa 1977 and is overseen by a creepy chaperone (Nichols). A car wreck and a bloody prom dress figure in the fade-out, which Zack sums up by bellowing, “I’m just boring, but you’re insane!”

Though the last scene is no more believable than those prior, it is the most successful — more perhaps for what, to quote two characters, it “coulda, shoulda, woulda” been than what it is — and gets the technical crew’s juices flowing. Atif Rome’s set for the faux prom is strewn with plastic leis and partially deflated balloons; in all its tackiness, it’s quite compelling. Lighting designer Jeffrey Cady does a nice job with different degrees of shadow and shade, and David Kiehl’s sound design — wobbly versions of Bee Gees and Abba songs — is as warped as Leona’s brain. Costume designer Georgianna Londre’s tour de force is Leona’s prom dress, a shredded pastel nightmare of ruffles and blood. But if the message of the play is for a person to give himself over to love regardless of his intended’s sanity, there is a lot to be said for being single.
Sign of the Times: Missouri Repertory Theatre’s new director, Peter Altman, must have had a tinge of regret about leaving Boston’s Huntington Theater Company when he saw the January 23 New York Times. On the cover of the arts section: two color photographs (one so large it inched below the fold) and an unqualified rave from chief Times critic Ben Brantley about the Huntington’s Hedda Gabler, directed by Altman’s successor, Nicholas Martin. “Kate Burton is giving one of those rare benchmark performances that redefine both a classic character and an actress,” Brantley wrote of Richard Burton’s daughter’s winning work in the title role. “Seldom has she seemed so accessible, so vulnerable and … so dangerous.”

Altman says that, under his stewardship, it was rare but not unheard of for Times critics — still the gauge of a play’s success — to stop by the Huntington. “They had in the past [where] one of their main criteria was whether a production was likely to come into New York,” Altman says. “With this production, there had been some high-profile discussion about it having a Broadway run.”

The Huntington was, for example, a laboratory of sorts for playwright August Wilson, staging new Wilson plays very early in their development. But Altman says that if this Gabler does see a Broadway stage, as Brantley almost insists, it would be the first time in the life of the company that a Times review led directly to a Broadway house. Altman says, “We did plays that they covered, and we did plays that went to New York, but never with the same play.” What a boost it would be for Altman and The Rep were either of those scenarios to happen here.

Categories: A&E, Stage