Birth of a Salesman

Julian Sheppard's Buicks falls squarely in the middle-aged-male life-crisis genre. Bill, who owns a car dealership and has a wife, Kathy, and two children, is a glad-handing, posturing creep, mildly racist and, most of all, utterly oblivious to the thoughts and feelings of those around him. He doesn't see his Mexican secretary, Naranja, as a person. He doesn't relate in any meaningful way to his wife. His ability to parent his children -- who never appear on stage -- is nil. He knows nothing about his young daughter's interests and feels that he's in competition with his talented son, Danny. He's the archetypal salesman, all smile and no life. The first scene, in which he sells a Buick to a witless customer, is fast, funny and one of the play's best.

But then Kathy leaves with the children, and Bill has no idea how to carry on. He takes to the road in one of his Buicks, having bullied Naranja -- who needs his help as a sponsor to get her green card -- into coming with him. He has half an intention of chasing down his wife, but he's also motivated by something else, some vague idea about road trips and adventure and finding himself. Bill discovers that his wife doesn't want to see him, but he also realizes that he himself has never really loved her.

There are further realizations. As in the classic hero's quest, helpers appear along the way, people who react oddly to Bill or lecture him, refuse his friendship or pretend to be his friend. Naranja turns out to have her own dreams and her own strength. Even before the climactic scene that changes Bill's course entirely, there are times when he reveals a touch of humanity.

Some of the scenes feel a bit repetitive; you occasionally get tired of hearing Bill talk about himself, but there's also a lot of dialogue that's interesting and original, and the scenes that work do so very nicely. David Harms gives a heartfelt performance that shows both Bill's nastiness and his vulnerability (there's something intensely pathetic about his thin socks and loafers alone). The scene in which Bill tells Naranja about the stars is genuinely touching. Leah Keith is a gentle, fascinatingly enigmatic Naranja. I've seen a lot of passionless embraces on stage, but when Bill and Naranja finally make love, it feels sensual and sweet.

Barbara Andrews makes us empathize with Kathy, particularly in her first scene, a dinner-table conversation with Bill full of sporadic attempts at talk and exasperated silences. The scene in which she regrets their lost dreams feels hackneyed, though this is the fault of the playwright, not the actress. Jarrad Holbrook creates five interesting characters, and Ken Witt is Bill's dejected father.

My guilty pleasure of late has been watching Wife Swap and Trading Spouses, television shows in which two women take up residence in each other's homes and are forced to relate to husbands and children who are not their own. An obsessive pet hater, for example, finds herself in the chaotic home of a woman whose numerous dogs and cats aren't even reliably housebroken. Although the swaps are short -- a week or two -- the participants appear to be profoundly affected by their experiences. What's interesting is how unpredictable the outcomes are. The pet hater ends up welcoming a ginger kitten into her home, while the carefree animal lover proves rage-filled and rigid. A conservative Republican husband is able to maintain a cordial relationship with the lesbian who's landed in his house, though his wife bullies the lesbian's partner mercilessly. There are revelatory moments. A visiting mom is able to forge an affectionate bond with a sullen, withdrawn teenager. A hippie kid discovers that a little discipline isn't a bad thing, while a home-schooled teenager explodes in joy and wonder at the opportunity to attend high school for a week: "I have a locker!" It's exactly the kind of pleasure provided by these moments that I felt periodically watching Buicks, particularly at the end, when Bill makes a comment about his son that reveals he's found his soul.