Saturday, June 22, 2019

Dealing With Clair—Public Citizen Theatre—N. Portland



        The Ugly Ones

    This British thriller is written by Martin Crimp and directed by Aaron Filyaw.  It is playing at the Cathedral Park Place in the St. John’s area of Portland, 6635 N. Baltimore Ave., upstairs in Suite 270, through June 30th.  For more information, go to their site at www.publiccitizentheatre.org

    There are certain people in life (and I’m sure we all know them) that are simply out to do harm, to create chaos, to make our lives more difficult—that are purely Evil Incarnate.  These people were not born, but simply crawled out from under a rock somewhere, or from the gutter, and are on earth to challenge, like the snake in the proverbial Garden of Eden, the Goodness inherent in Mankind.
But that Evil does prove one thing, the existence of a God (according to a Mexican fable) because, if there were no Evil in the world, there would be no need for a God.  It’s a balancing act of contrasts, you can’t have one, without the existence/presence of the other.
    Crimp reminds me very much of another popular Brit author, Patrica Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, et. al.), who has these slow, very slow, build-ups to the heart of the Evil that oozes through every pore of these characters’ existence, sneaking up on you and whispering “boo” in your ear, as a chill runs down your spine.  (Even the title has a double-meaning.)
Being a mystery means I can only give you a thumb-nail sketch of the proceedings.  We open with a real-estate agent, Clair (Amanda Mehl), living near the train tracks in London and we discover how isolated her world is from others.  Her clients, in this story, are the social–climbing, Mike (Joseph Workman) and his wife Liz (Taylor Jean Grady), as well as their baby and her slovenly Italian nanny, Anna (Katherine Rose), who wish to move up in the world and want to sell their flat for a princely fee.
    They get a fair offer from one family but then enter, James (Gerry Birnbach), an American businessman, an Art dealer, with a roving eye for the ladies, and willing to up the ante and pay cash.  Some repairs need to be done first, so they hire Ashley (Ben Lawrence), a tradesman, to do the work.  But there is something decidedly wrong in these social and financial exchanges.  A sinister air permeates the atmosphere and soon we realize that all is not as it seems.  Somebody, if not all, is/are being duped and the trail will linger on to the very last line.  And so, you need to see it to discover the outcome.
    This Brit-style of mystery always seems to have a droll humor to it, an array of colorful and slightly off-balanced characters and usually more than one twist in its many turns.  This is a struggling, new company and certainly deserves some attention.  The sparse setting is not ideals for this sort of story but the actors more than make up for it.  They all fit their characters nicely with a stand-out performance by Birnbach, as the mysterious stranger.  And the director, Filyaw, working on an essentially bare stage, is a good storyteller and has assembled a very astute cast to present it.
    I recommend this play, it’s worth your time.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.
--DJS

The following is a review by Martha Harris, a young lady I’m mentoring in the art of reviewing:

As a current college student, I’ve worked a continuous string of customer service jobs since I was 16 and would cry if a customer was angry. It seems in every job, I have customers who push my boundaries—asking me to do something outside of being a customer, but instead as a person who wants something from another person. I want to do my job, help them have a positive experience with the company that is paying, but some people take advantage of that.

Maybe they misread my friendly smile as something flirtatious, only for them. Maybe they are just seeing what they want to see because even though I put on this front of being genuine and kind to every customer, we are after all just strangers. And it’s a lot easier to manipulate your idea of who someone is when you know nothing about them. I think we all do that to some extent. We see a stranger walking down the street and try to create a narrative for them, thinking we know something about who they are. While often harmless, what happens when our assumptions go too far and we start acting on them?

Clair (Amanda Mehl) works in London as a real estate agent, providing customer service at the stressful time of buying and selling flats. Mike (Joseph Workman) and Liz (Taylor Jean Grady), a couple with a six-month-old baby and Italian nanny named Anna (Katherine Rose), are selling their suburban flat with the help of Clair and looking to move to a smaller flat. Mike and Liz decide to ditch a serious buyer when James (Gerry Birnbach), an American businessman, comes along willing to pay a high price all in cash. The couple is concerned that James might not be placing a serious offer after not bringing his wife to see the flat and taking his time in handing over the money, but they are willing to take the risk for a bigger payout. Even if it’s not the most “honorable” way.

Over his many visits to the flat, James takes a particular interest in Clair, diving, as far as he can, into her private life, which begs the question, who is this man and what is he really interested in, the flat or Clair?

Dealing with Clair, written by Martin Crimp and directed by Aaron Filyaw, is a suspenseful telling of how sinister buying/selling a flat can get, when each party has such strong objectives and are willing to cross moral lines for their end result. The story and writing style are reminiscent of such thriller novels as Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

It also addresses the way that young women are often treated by men in professional settings, crossing a line with compliments, comments, and playful touches on the arm. Not understanding their position of power and that the professional relationship is not appropriate for those types of advances.
In this production by Public Citizen Theatre, the minimal space and set are magnified by the musical compositions by Gavin Knittle and sound design by Stephen Claypool and Aaron Filyaw. Their work helps to add dimension, texture, and flow to the various setting and scene changes. The lighting design by Robert Osterhout also enhances the work with red overtones that changes in intensity with the plot and scene, creating an ominous glow on the actors.

Gerry Birnbach’s portrayal of James, the businessman, reminds me of Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones (2009). In both performances, on the surface, you just see a pleasant middle-aged man, but there is an underlying edge that is unsettling and keeps the audience waiting for the other shoe to drop. Joseph Workman does a great job as Mike maintaining an air of subtle, confident power over all the women in his life, helping to add to the play’s themes. Amanda Mehl as Clair physically shows the drudgery of being in a profession she doesn’t particularly care for. Mehl also displays an interesting juxtaposition between her normal unassailable self and when she is belittled, particularly by men, and loses that confidence. I also applaud the entire cast in their handling of all of the dialects that come with this play.

Dealing with Clair is playing now until June 30th at Bridgetown Conservatory at Cathedral Park Place (6635 N Baltimore Ave. Suite 270 Portland, OR 97203). For more information visit publiccitizentheare.org.

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