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Lucia Brawley and Norbert Leo Butz in Buicks
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Julian Sheppard's insistently strong Buicks is the latest in the series of spins on Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman that have elbowed their way onto the American cultural horizon since 1949. As a look at the American dream turning nightmarish, it might have been called Rebirth of a Salesman.

Sheppard, who has a handful of other plays to his credit, here serves vociferous notice that he is capable of significant work and joins Stephen Adly Guirgis on the short roster of emerging playwrights demanding to be closely watched. Moreover, The Underwood Theater -- for which Buicks is the first full production, following a readings series at Ars Nova -- will turn out to be an important addition to the New York theater scene if it continues presenting plays of similar quality.

So much about Buicks is praiseworthy that it's difficult to prioritize the list of congratulations. Very close to the top is Norbert Leo Butz, who has been accumulating impressive musical theater credentials during the last two seasons, cavorting in Thou Shalt Not and The Last Five Years. Here he demonstrates, in a performance of great strength and mercurial sensitivity, that he houses considerable resources as a tragedian within his wiry frame. The character he plays in this many-faceted performance is Bill, a master car salesman who runs the Fresno dealership passed on to him by his caustic, wheel-chair-ridden father, Gerald (Bill Buell, in one of the six roles he tidily fills).

Smooth-talking Bill could probably sell ice cubes to Alaskans, as he shows in an opening sequence filled with so much verbal gymnastics that the mind boggles and then happily rights itself. But slick as this guy is at manipulating prospective buyers into signing on the dotted line for Rendezvous or Park Avenue models, he is a far and plaintive cry from enjoying the good life he promises others. Cowed by his critical dad and avoided by colleagues, Bill is also having problems with his wife, Kathy (Olivia Birkelund), and their two children. (The kids remain unseen.)

The only person who looks up to Bill, or seems to, is illegal Mexican emigré Naranja (the stunning Lucia Brawley), who's been doing clerical work for Bill but hopes that he'll sponsor her for a green card and eventually allow her to take the dealership floor as a saleswoman. Naranja is so intent on getting Bill's okay that, in the script's one hard-to-swallow development, she agrees to accompany him on an unusual test drive. Bill's wife has left him and taken the kids to her parents' Albuquerque residence. The abandoned fellow thinks he'll win her back with a speech of contrition, and so he lights out across country with Naranja in tow.

The beauty of the script is that, from the dazzling kick-off scene, Sheppard seems to be signaling just where he's going. He cleverly leads us to believe that Bill -- like Georg Buchner's Woyzeck and David Mamet's Edmond before him -- is in an unstoppable downward spiral. We think that this unadulterated loser, whose selling skills are peripheral to his measure as a man, will assault Naranja as he flames out on the road and in motel rooms. Encountering Kathy again, we guess that he'll endure a final, ignominious rebuff. After all, Fresno is the punchline of many bad jokes, and the fact that Bill's trip is doomed appears to be a foregone, life's-a-bitch-and-then-you-die conclusion.

Norbert Leo Butz and Bill Buell in Buicks
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
But it isn't, because Sheppard believes that people -- even the meekest among us -- are full of hopeful surprises and that the road to redemption may be rocky but doesn't necessarily lead to a dead end. As scene follows scene with a cinematic flow, one of the most startling sequences in Buicks takes place in a serviceable motel room where Bill and Naranja confront a double bed. No, Virginia, there is no forced sex. Instead, the aspiring Naranja, challenged by Bill to give a sales pitch, unleashes a persuasive oration. As the play glides to a halt on well-oiled brakes, it transpires that Naranja has as much to teach Bill as he has to show her. There are also eye-opening, even eye-blackening, lessons to be gleaned from a couple of the other men whom Bill Buell plays with such gusto.

Sheppard's notions about where learning the basics of human exchange figures in realizing the American Dream can't be underestimated. In this play, "buicks" often serves as a synonym for "dreams." Sheppard seems to be saying with a seasoned playwright's subtlety that when we really listen to others, and ourselves, about who we are and accept rather than deny what we want, it's then that we minimize the bumpy ride that life so regularly promises.

Contributing to the production's easy ride is director Brian Kulick, who helps to maximize the characters' complicated humanity. About Norbert Leo Butz's acting, much more than what was mentioned above could be said. Billed last in a cast of four actors whose surnames start with "b," Butz remains consistently engaged as a man so disengaged that he even takes to knocking his head on a table in hopes of coming to his senses. (This is a season of head-knocking: Clare Higgins does the same in Vincent in Brixton and has won awards for it.) Buell skillfully plays six different characters; included among them are a couple of prospective Buick owners, the mean Gerald, and an Arizona redneck who befriends and then turns on Bill. Lucia Brawley, using a Mexican accent that Bill thick-headedly assumes will harm Naranja's effecitiveness as a salesperson, very handily plays a woman who knows the value of revealing her tougher traits slowly. And Olivia Birkelund is appealingly exact as a woman whose frustration at never getting through to her husband eventually overwhelms her; a vignette wherein she tries to get Bill to describe what the two of them hoped their future would be as newlyweds is a model of playing and playwriting. Regardless of how Buicks are rated automobile-wise, Buicks is a luxury vehicle.

Incidentally: The actors, jumping in and out of Linda Ross's nifty costumes, do much changing of Walt Spangler's flexible set whenever the adept lighting designer Michael Chybowski fades to black and the equally adept sound designer Darron L. West turns up the revving engine noises. These four aren't the only Actors' Equity members doing what are normally considered IATSE duties; it's happening all over town. Will the situation become a bargaining point when the Equity contract comes up for renewal next year?

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