Dishing at the Diner

Beowulf's world-premiere tale of 1950s encyclopedia salesmen is unsatisfying

Let me introduce Fronting the Order, now onstage at Beowulf Alley Theatre Company, by sharing two things that you notice before the show even begins.

First is the charming, '50s-era diner setting, created by Charlie Middagh and the show's director, Sheldon Metz. While far from photorealistic, it perfectly hits all the details of that vintage greasy spoon you remember (or imagine you remember). There are colorful vinyl-backed chairs, black-and-white photos of pop stars on the wall, and chrome trim everywhere. Outside the window is a Main Street panorama straight out of an Edward Hopper painting.

The second thing is the period music. Walking in, I recognized a familiar vintage pop tune, and felt some disappointment as it quickly faded away. I assumed I had simply missed the rest of the song, but then another memorable tune came over the speakers; it, too, would stay only long enough to be recognized before giving way to the next song. The songs apparently were played in digest form to allow a maximum number of them to be heard, but the effect was both intensely nostalgic and unsatisfying.

Those two details encapsulate the play that follows. Fronting the Order is a personal work, lovingly crafted and full of wonderful period details—but it, too, remains frustratingly unsatisfying.

Beowulf and Wellangoode Productions deserve praise for bringing this play to the stage for the first time. Not every new work is a masterpiece, but without opportunities to be seen onstage, a writer's best work never has a chance to emerge.

Playwright Warren Bodow has spent enough winters in Tucson to be considered a local writer. Writing is a second career for Bodow, who spent 15 years managing classical radio stations for the New York Times Company. In 2009, he won favorable reviews for his play Race Music, produced in New York by the Diverse City Theater Company.

In Fronting the Order, Bodow turns to his memories of his time as a young man selling encyclopedias door to door. The title refers to a fraudulent practice in which a salesman earns his $35 commission on a sale by advancing the customer $10.

The play concerns a four-man team of encyclopedia salesmen who have made their way to a small town in New York state. As they sit in a shabby diner, waiting for prime sales time to roll around, they swap stories, bicker and test each other's salesmanship.

Under particular scrutiny is David (Joshua Silvain), who, after initial wild success, has now gone weeks without a sale. Longtime friend Mitch (Daniel Colecchia) is his staunch defender, idolizing David for his intelligence and success. Less impressed are streetwise ladies' man Pete (Tenoch Gomez) and aging team leader Murph (Bill Epstein).

The sole female presence in the diner is waitress Evie (Denise Blum). As an outsider, she is shocked by the men's questionable sales techniques—they tell prospective customers that the encyclopedias are free, then charge exorbitant fees for "updated services"—but she's also smitten by David's quiet charm.

A number of mysteries are left unresolved. A couple of times, Evie mysteriously cries out from the kitchen; the second time, she apparently passes out, burning herself in the process. The cause of these incidents is never explained. Likewise, the younger salesmen seem to suggest that Murph's behavior is growing erratic and worrisome, but that thread, too, is left forgotten.

Perhaps the greatest puzzle of the play, however, has to do with its treatment of racism. Bodow has written sensitively about race before, and here, his characters' ingrained racism paints a clear picture of how far we've come (or not come) in 50 years—i.e., the derision once directed toward Poles is now held in reserve for Mexicans. But the play's most reprehensible character is the only one who speaks in favor of racial inclusion. At the play's climax, another character makes a sacrifice that's heroic, but that sacrifice will slow the encyclopedia company's progress toward selling to black customers.

It can be compelling to have virtuous characters be flawed and to put truth in the mouth of a villain, but Bodow doesn't exercise these techniques with enough precision to make it clear that the subversion is intentional.

Director Metz, who has proved his skills in numerous productions, has not brought this production into a solid whole. This is probably due in part to the relative inexperience of both the writer and much of the cast.

Each of the actors playing a salesman seems to possess the energy essential to his role. Colecchia is thoughtful and self-effacing; Gomez is robust and volatile. Silvain is incredibly guarded until he reveals his character's true colors with a fury, and Epstein mixes the wisdom of experience with a short fuse.

What the four are never able to do, however, is successfully create the illusion of four men having a conversation. Each line of dialogue feels like a line of dialogue, rather than a character's spontaneous expression.

Blum benefits from her character's outsider status. As soon as she enters, her feminine energy lights up the stage, and her objective (to sleep with a nice young man) is simple and engaging.

Fronting the Order does offer some laughs and insight into our romanticization of the '50s. But when Bodow half-jokingly refers to himself as an emerging playwright in his program notes, I take him at his word: I hope that we have the opportunity to continue watching his talent emerge onstage here in the Old Pueblo.

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