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A CurtainUp Review
Buicks


A couple, perhaps married too young and now in their thirties, faces a faltering relationship. Kathy (Olivia Birkelund) stumbles on, until she's had enough, leaving a note behind as she packs her belongings and the kids in the car and bails out. Bill (Norbert Leo Butz), ineptly successful but unsatisfied running the family car dealership, sets out on an "adventure" with his illegal Mexican receptionist, Naranja (Lucia Brawley), to find his family and maybe himself.

Julian Sheppard has written a sharp play that is reminiscent of other plays about self-deluded salesmen and symbols of the corrupted American Dream, but one that ends on a note of hope. Bill, Mr. Sheppard's salesman seems to be on as unstoppable a downward slide as Willie Loman, yet he's not an unredeemable loser. As Naranja, the young Mexican woman brilliantly played by Lucia Brawley (whom I previously admired as Miranda in The Tempest at Shakespeare & Company), puts it he is not really the asshole he deems himself to be but "a good man who's trying to be an asshole."

Granted Naranja's speech that leads to Bill's connecting more meaningfully with his father and his thirteen-year-old son (the older and younger generation) is a bit hackneyed, but it leads to a thoroughly convincing and just redemptive enough but not too much so ending. What's more the motel scene that turns into a test demonstration of the salesmanship skills Naranja has absorbed as a clerk in the Buick dealership office is terrific. She could sell me a car no matter what the brand.

Ms. Brawley is of course just one of an outstanding cast of four -- which seems much larger thanks to Bill Buell's adept shifts into six characters (all of whom enrich the play). Norbert Leo Butz whose abilities as an actor as well as singer were evident in The Last Five Years here fully realizes his potential for "straight" acting parts. He gives an intensely physical portrait of a man who is bound to be the asshole he accuses everyone else of being, yet he also wins our sympathy. He may always be a Buick (Sheppard's metaphor for ordinary) but you're happy to see that he's got some of that car's solid qualities to get his life into somewhat better shape.

Coming to the show late in its all too short run, I saw it with Viviene Bennesch taking over from Olivia Birkelund as Bill's wife Kathy. Bennesch, an actress I've seen and liked before, makes the most of the character on stage for the shortest time. Her tension, like Bill's, clarifies the slowly-brewing trouble in a marriage that probably wasn't ever made in heaven.

Brian Kulick's direction is well-paced, very cinematic but without the annoying blackouts often associated with that term. There will , or should be, other productions of this play -- and more new works from the newly formed Underwood Theater company. In the meantime, with no extension scheduled that I've heard about, you've got another week to see if you agree with me. At $15 a ticket and with every seat giving you a perfect view of the stage, no one is going to argue that it's a best buy for your bu{i}ck.

Buicks
Written by Julian Shepard
Directed by Brian Kulick
with Olivia Birkelund, and late in the run Vivienne Benesch, Lucia Brawley, Bill Buell and Norbert Leo Butz
Set Design: Walt Spangler
Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski
Costume Design: Linda Ross
Sound Design: Darron West
A production of The Underwood Theater
Running time: 1 hours 45 minutes with 1 intermission
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway, 4th Floor (@76 ST)
Telephone: (212) 206-1515
TUES - SAT @8, SAT @2, SUN @3; $15
Opening March 9, 2003, closing March 30, 2003
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/22/03 performance
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