Thornton Wilder's Our Town and Norm Foster's The Motor Trade 

Innocence and damnation

Thursday, Mar 31 2011

Thornton Wilder's 1938 play Our Town, currently playing in a solid, traditional rendition at Sierra Madre Playhouse, takes a wistful, solemn look at Grover's Corners, New Hampshire — from the views of its archaeology and demographics (in Act 1), its marriages (Act 2) and the lingering presences of its dead (Act 3). All of this unfolds over 14 years at the beginning of the 20th century, as horse-drawn carts yield to Ford motor cars. One of the characters gets out of town to start a business in Buffalo, N.Y., but returns near the play's end to attend the funeral of a childhood friend.

Canadian playwright Norm Foster's 1991 dark comedy, The Motor Trade, presented by Theatre/Theater, takes us to Doral Valley Motors, relocated by director Jeff Murray from Canada to the same Buffalo where Our Town's entrepreneur arrived at the top end of the 20th century. In The Motor Trade, that century is grinding down. Like Our Town, it's a play about ordinary people, working stiffs —  in this case, a pair of used-car salesmen, Phil and Dan (Alex Morris and Dan Martin), who happen to be black, scraping by for decades as co-owners of the franchise.

It's a rough day to be selling cars in Buffalo. A blizzard has ground business to a standstill. Levelheaded Dan sits at his desk perusing the local paper, and notices the obit for a cross-town car dealer that mentions his death, his wife and his kids, but nothing about him. Dan wonders: What kind of mark do we leave? What exactly is the point of it all?

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DONALD SONGSTER - Sing a little prayer for us, in Our Town.
  • Sing a little prayer for us, in Our Town.

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Our Town tells us that the point of it all is to pay attention, rather than sleepwalk. Because one day you're a teenager protesting your love, and in the blink of an eye you both have silver hair — presuming divorce hasn't intervened. Pay attention to each moment, to the quality of your friendships and your partnerships.

By the end of The Motor Trade, the partnership has fractured. Despite the hardships and betrayals, Phil pleads with Dan as if he has nothing left to live for: Tell me we were friends. He might as well be pleading that Thornton Wilder spoke the truth. That life is composed of its moments, and meaning is derived only from those tiniest of moments, and from paying attention to them.

Our Town has met with some hostility from its detractors, despite being perhaps the most popular American play ever written. The complaint about Our Town is that it's sentimental and maudlin while at the same time escapist, painting a kind of idyllic portrait of small-town American life, passing over its hypocrisies, claustrophobia and nastiness, which are captured so aptly by the likes of William Inge and Tennessee Williams.

Those sentimental and maudlin qualities, however, typically reside in the staging of the play, not in its writing. Up in Sierra Madre, director Sabina Ptasznik avoids those pitfalls by interpreting the play in the style of a breezy poem. The characters clearly have no time for slovenly displays of emotion. When George Gibbs (Ryan Burke) collapses at the grave of his wife, Emily (Lila Dupree), and bursts into tears, a character comments from a distance, in perfect conformity with the stiff-upper-lipped tone of Ptasznik's production, "Oh, my, that's no way to behave."

Wilder wrote Our Town at the tail end of the Great Depression, when themes of social injustice prevailed in the American theater of that time. The Stage Manager/Narrator (Christian Lebano, as fine here as he was in Opus at the Fountain Theatre) talks about this being a town that takes care of its people who can't take care of themselves. If they can take care of themselves, it leaves them alone. Even that modest 1938 standard of social welfare would be seen as radical interventionism today. Yet it was too modest for the pre–World War II leftists who made up a significant segment of the theatergoing public and who believed that Our Town should be about something more important than getting by from day to day, until death descends.

The crucial divide between Wilder and Foster, and between their plays' perceptions of America at the beginning of the century and its end, lies in Wilder's community of characters in which nobody lies and nobody reveals any duplicity or corruption. Nobody cheats on his or her spouse, or on high school midterms. The only thing they cheat is the richness of life passing them by so swiftly that they're indifferent to it. And that's not really cheating, that's obliviousness.

The divide between the rich and the poor was brutally exposed by the Depression, and we're back on exactly the same path, with the accruing of the nation's wealth by a historically small percentage of the financial elite, and all economic and communications systems in place to perpetuate their stranglehold.

This is the immediate crisis of our age, as it was, to a lesser extent, in Wilder's. Whether you find his play trivial or not will depend on whether you feel injustice is a consequence of our behavior or of God's, and whether you're more upset by a sociopolitical system that is rigged to reward a minority of speculators and to neglect those who toil, or by a system of metaphysics that strikes down children by disease or by accident before they've had an opportunity to really appreciate life's small but profound bounty.

Everybody's cheating in The Motor Trade, which is one source of its abundant humor. Phil has been ripping off Dan, because he secretly knows that Dan boffed his wife (Delaina Mitchell), who's now leaving him for — could it get any worse — a Dodge dealer across town. Meanwhile, an IRS tax agent (Michele Harrell) drops by to audit Phil, since he's been dodging her calls and letters for months.

That the sad-sack, blustering Phil, who's obsessed with the titty bar across the street, is also the kind of guy who enters as tax deductions so-called "contributions" to the "Save the Bison Fund" and "the United Nations" offers a small window onto the nature of Foster's humor.

The play's beauty also lies in how the characters' betrayals surface gently through the repartee and the unspoken details of behavior. For example, after years of the pair ordering in from the Chinese place next door, Dan decides to eat lunch alone there. Why, after all these years? Why now? It has something to do with a topic of conversation they've just had, and it's understood, not overexplained. There's a gorgeous, loopy argument over what Dan should bring back for Phil from the restaurant that's an amalgam of early Pinter and Mamet, with a smidgen of Pulp Fiction.

The two principal performances are priceless in Jeff Murray's staging. That acting and some of the comedic riffs in the writing are reason enough to see this play, and they compensate somewhat for the strains on credibility — that a tax agent gets personal with a client she's auditing about her own romantic despair, for instance.

Mitchell plays Darlene — Phil's gorgeous, floozy wife at the end of her tether — with a clipped gait, so that she trots across the stage like a pony. It's very funny, though it slips the play from a Mametesque slice-of-life comedy into the edges of a sitcom.

They all have secrets that they're dissembling or lying about, rolling along until their duplicity is no longer sustainable. In Our Town, they keep telling the truth, with only a facile comprehension of what it means to be alive — until life itself is no longer sustainable. Only the dead understand what it means to be damned.

THE MOTOR TRADE | By Norm Foster | Presented by Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Mid-City | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m. | Through April 24 | (323) 422-6361, theatretheater.net

OUR TOWN | By Thornton Wilder | Presented by Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2:30 p.m. | Through April 16 | (626) 355-4318, sierramadreplayhouse.org

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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