Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Merchants" by Susan Sobeloff: A play for the Great Recession

Is No Nude Men starting a tradition of producing new plays each March that deal with the current economic crisis? But while last year's Hermes was about the greedy and amoral one-percenters who are responsible for the economic mess, this year's Merchants, by Susan Sobeloff, is about a middle-class American family trying to deal with the economic downturn -- it's a play for the 99%.

Merchants focuses on two sisters: Lilah (Ariane Owens) has always been the responsible one with a good job, while Mercedes (Maura Halloran) has always been her flaky bohemian kid sister. But when the recession hits, forcing their mother (Trish Tillman) to close the family business and causing Lilah's husband Theo (Tony Cirimele) to lose his job, the family decides that their best hope of making money is to turn Mercedes' performance-art hobby into a viable career. Soon, Mercedes is going out on tours and the phone is ringing off the hook with requests to buy T-shirts and schedule bookings. But this new method of making money also causes stress for everyone -- forcing them to do things they never thought they'd do, things they always hated. Ultimately, it forces them to grow.

Sobeloff makes the striking and unusual choice not to show Lilah and Mercedes really interacting with one another until the very end of the play, whetting our anticipation for what the sisters will say to each other when they finally get to have a real conversation. Other good scenes include the one where we get a taste of Mercedes' performance art and the funny scene of Lilah and Theo interacting with customers on the phone.  Director Stuart Bousel, the cast, and the rest of the No Nude Men team have given the play a solid production for its world premiere.

At first, I wasn't sure I was going to blog about Merchants. I thought the play and production were well-done, but I wasn't sure if I had any special angle or insight into them. Then I realized that perhaps my very lack of an angle is a virtue. That is, Merchants is not a trendy or a cutting-edge play.  It is squarely in the tradition of psychologically-realistic American plays that depict a family dealing with economic hardship. (Often, as in Merchants, these plays deal with Jewish families -- cf. Awake and Sing or Death of a Salesman.) But who says that a play can be good only if it's hip or experimental? The subject matter of Merchants is timely, the script provides good roles for women, and the story is ultimately satisfying. Furthermore, with this production, No Nude Men is taking a chance on a first-time female playwright. And what's not to like about that?

Merchants runs through March 24 at the Exit Stage Left, San Francisco. Tickets here.

Disclosure: I was comped to Merchants last weekend.

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