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MADE IN AMERICA, a world premiere at Dobama

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

When Dobama, Ensemble, Beck’s studio theatre and convergence-continuum, venues, where each has a mission of producing innovative and forward-thinking plays search for scripts, they usually turn to recent Broadway and off-Broadway offerings.  Every once in a while, they workshop new scripts in order to allow the authors to discover the strengths and weaknesses of their writing by exposing the material to selected audiences.  This process allows the author to make changes before the work is presented to general audiences.

Seldom do such theaters, which depend upon box office sales for their existence, give a full staging to untested scripts as part of their regular season.

Dobama, since it was founded, has been a forerunner, an innovator.   Don Bianchi, the founding artistic director, cast plays without tryouts, staged a closet drama…a script intended to be read, but not staged, directed a script that required a realistic set in the round with no set, and occasionally produced new scripts.  Yes, Dobama, since its spur-of-the-moment creation, has been a creative theater.

Dobama is generally recognized as the first venue in the area to earn the classification of “Guest Artist Theatre”—a theatre which has an agreement with Equity, whose productions normally include one or more Equity members, and/or who pay all or some their actors in a performance or supply their actors with a stipend.

Some might question why new Artistic Director Nathan Motto would chose an untested script, by an untested writer, when the theatre has, of late, stuck to the more tried and true plays and writers, with good success.  Yes, the present show, MADE IN AMERICA, is a script with no history of table readings, workshops, or testing before audiences.  Part of the reason for its selection may be that it was written by former Dobama Artistic Director Joel Hammer.

“Made” could mean constructed, created or fabricated.  A slang definition of the word is “to have your cover blown.”  Ironically, in MADE IN AMERICA, both definitions are applicable.

Topics such as race, sexual power, gender dynamics, manipulation, and alcohol’s influence on communication and judgement, evolve as MADE IN AMERICA unfolds.  The question emerges,  How often do the situations revealed in the play take place in the real world?

Barry is a large construction company’s purchasing agent.  (Or, is he?)  Esther is a married mother with a son, who is a salesperson of materials used in construction.  (Or, is she?)

The duo meets in the bar of the hotel in which Esther is staying, which is located in Barry’s city.  He invited her to present her final proposal before a purchase decision is made.  (Did he?)  They have been negotiating for many months about the purchase of materials to be used in the construction of a government building.  The price is important, but so is the requirement that all materials used in federal construction projects be made in America.  The decision is important.  This is a million dollar sale, which would net Esther about $50,000 in sales bonuses.

Who are these people?  Esther is an intelligent, attractive African American woman.  Barry, who consumes a great deal of alcohol, obviously is power hungry, and has strong racial and sexist attitudes, which flow forth as he drinks more and more.  Both are driven.  Both are creatively conniving, willing to do about anything to get what they want.   The exposition of the first act ends with what appears to be a situation in which Barry has the upper hand.  (Or, does he?)

The cat and mouse game continues in the second act.  Seemingly, the tables have turned and now Esther apparently has the upper hand.  (Or, does she?)  Even as the final lights go out, we may not know the conclusion.  (Or, do we?)

Hammer’s script is not a polished product.  It probably should have been workshopped before it was given a staged production.   There is excessive wordiness in parts.  Some situations take too long to develop.  After a while, the characters stop growing and become redundant.

The production, under the direction of Scott Miller, sometimes drags.  Some key ideas in the cat and mouse game need keying and stressing.  Without that the audience is robbed of playing detective, running the “I figured it out factor.”

Both Joel Hammer, as Barry, and Colleen Longshaw, as Esther, are very competent performers who display understanding of their roles and develop real people.  That is, as real as the writing allows.

The bar setting is awkwardly configured.  It does not look like a bar.  The bedroom setting is much more functional.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  Dobama should be commended for going out on a limb by selecting a new play.  Unfortunately, MADE IN AMERICA is not a polished script and needed to be more completely tested to determine if it was audience ready.  Attendees will be rewarded by being the first to see the script in production, but should be aware that they are seeing a piece of theatrical writing in progress, which is given a competent production.

MADE IN AMERICA runs through, April 6, 2014 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.