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Material whirl
Something in the Air in Lowell
Something in the Air
By Richard Dresser. Directed by Melia Bensussen. Set by Judy Gailen. Costumes by Martha Hally. Lighting by Dan Kotlowitz. Sound by Jeff Jones. With Buzz Bovshow, Deborah LaCoy, Henny Russell, Richard Snee, and Jeremiah Wiggins. At Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell, through April 11.

Cross Raymond Chandler with Ivan Boesky and you might birth the atmosphere of Richard Dresserís cynical cartoon Something in the Air. Michael Douglasís character in the 1987 film Wall Street was channeling Boesky when he pronounced, "Greed is good! Greed is right! Greed works! Greed will save the USA!" Dresser picks up on this advocacy of avarice in his cautionary satire, which is in its New England premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, but he also adds a noir element, having his scheming opportunists slink around in trenchcoats and shadow to almost sinister strains of languid jazz. The result is clever but insubstantial: he probably should have called the play Something in Thin Air.

Actually, the title ingredient is the sweet smell of lucre, which in Dresserís whimsically ruthless presentation of "the present, only more so" can turn the nicest sad sack into a grasper. In the small urban world of the play, where no one has more than one name, a desperate fellow named Walker stumbles into the office of a player named Neville, whom he believes to be an analyst who might save his life. Turns out Nevilleís a financial analyst, but that doesnít mean he has no life-saving bait to dangle before Walker. The surefire investment heís selling: death.

Neville brokers the life-insurance policies of the terminally ill. Agree to pay the bills and premiums of a moribund unfortunate until he kicks it and you get named the beneficiary. The hapless Walker signs on and gets matched with an irascible travel agent named Cram, whom spite and mean-spiritedness are keeping alive. Doing a pretty good job of it, too. Maybe thatís where the Philip Marlowe atmospherics come in; itís soon apparent that Walker will be wishing Cram a long goodbye, all the while torn between a well wisherís sympathy and a vultureís need to feed. Of course, no noir vehicle is complete without a sexy, possibly duplicitous femme, and Dresser supplies a couple. Sloane is the "well assembled" dame Walker meets in a bar, where she seduces him with "family stories" straight out of Edgar Allan Poe. Holloway is the RN whose tightly wound altruism comes undone when Walker hires her to help Cram shuffle off his mortal coil.

Dresser is a broad-stroke satirist with a gift for clipped exaggeration and the well-constructed quip. The funniest character here is probably Holloway, her smile as rigid as her coiffure as she sunnily advises Walker to "stand back and let a licensed professional put his [Cramís] lights out." But the author also has fun with a running gag about Walkerís synthetic overcoat, which every character mistakes for status-bestowing cashmere, as well as with Nevilleís pricy private club, where a spear of asparagus costs $75 and the management wonít tend to a corpse unless itís wearing a jacket and tie.

Yet for all its jazzy accouterment, Something in the Air is not subtle in its portrayal of greed and self-interest swamping the jellyfish of human kindness. The play depends too much on its stream of breezy callousness, and stretched to two acts, the 90-minute noir-toon grows tedious. Dresser tries to inject some tenderness into the relationship between Walker and Sloane, but thereís not enough humanity in the characters to make their effort to supply each other warmth ó whether human or exuding from a sidewalk grate ó resonate as the author means it too.

Dresser has written some 10 plays, several of which first saw light at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, a couple of which have run Off Broadway (mostly recently, his mismatched-Little-League-coaches comedy Rounding Third), and one of which, Below the Belt, has been made into a film. MRT artistic director Charles Towers is a fan; he helmed Dresserís Gun-Shy in 2002 and plans to follow Something in the Air with Rounding Third. Here he lobs the directing honors to the Obie-winning producing director of Emerson Stage, Melia Bensussen, who keeps the play moving stylishly (much as she did the cinematic but skeletal Diosa at Hartford Stage). Judy Gailenís abstract set, which takes its cue from graphic novels, is also on the move, the playís locales ranging from a soup kitchen complete with giant bowl of glop to Nevilleís snobby club.

The actors go through their paces with a quirky glibness thatís appropriate. Buzz Bovshow, a scabrous cross between Beckettís Krapp and the Stoogesí Curly, is amusingly dour as Cram. Henny Russell mixes some smoldering Kathleen Turner into her uptight Florence Nightingale. Richard Snee is his polished self as Neville, sort of a cross between Mephistopheles and Peter Lynch. Jeremiah Wiggins, as the decent but fallen Walker, and Deborah LaCoy, as the ditzily depressive Sloane, try to spread some sincerity onto the cardboard. But thereís no depth and not enough darkness in this satire. Dresser serves up black comedy, but in a saucer.

Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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