Stage: Wednesday, June 19, 2003
Tough Sell

Circle Theatre’s Ad Wars has a lot going for it — maybe too much.


Theatergoers don’t usually experience that “ripped from the headlines” sensation that the viewers of tv dramas often get, but Circle Theatre’s current production of Ad Wars comes close. Playwright Vince McKewin’s acidic, disjointed dark comedy takes place almost exactly 12 years ago in the high-rise offices of a prominent Manhattan ad agency. But an international incident far away from the latté-sipping lives of the company’s employees hangs heavy over the play. The U.S.-led effort to drive Iraqi invaders from Kuwait in 1991 indirectly propels this New York advertising team — accustomed to selling toothpaste and toilet paper — to craft a specialized pitch for a drone missile.

Prior to the current Middle East situation, the Gulf War was the handiest media-age example of how defense contractors aggressively vie for government deals that Vince McKewin, himself a former ad copywriter, could have seized upon. The euphemisms of war are equated to the sloganeering of ad campaigns, and both reveal the sadness and desperation of the professionals who traffic in these catchphrases. Not a surprising theme for a playwright to explore, nor a particularly satisfying one — the self-evident rarely translates to a suspenseful script. But this staging, directed with risky bravado by John S. Davies, does offer a boisterous vehicle for impressive talents hurling quips that can startle us with their timeliness.

Davies himself stars as Dick Hurley, a top executive with an eye toward the soon-to-be-filled president’s office that includes a wet bar and a sleeping nook. He has a problem: If he is to assume the corporate crown, he must strive to keep the behemoth General Electric as a client. The key to this is securing their campaign to sell the Pentagon a pilotless missile that — in the words of the guffawing GE rep and Vietnam vet Billy Davis (a gruesomely cheerful Cliff Stephens) — “can [shoot straight up] an Iraqi’s asshole at 30,000 feet.” His staff is clueless, enthusiastic, and ethically ambivalent all at once, including coke-sniffing art man Don (Sean T. Perez); cold-blooded media director Jill (Julienne Greer); and earnest trainee Fran (Lauren N. Goode) who asks all the right questions. Only Air Force reservist and copywriter Patrick (Derik Webb), fresh from 30-odd bombing strikes over the Persian Gulf, seems wrenched by the idea of selling bombs as blithely as tampons.

Director Davies tilts himself and his co-stars toward a staccato delivery spiked with slang that is straight out of the Broadway/Hollywood newspaper comedy The Front Page (with lots of 21st-century profanity added). Everyone is pushed up to and sometimes over the edge of artifice, and, for the most part, it keeps the proceedings lively. As secretary and unofficial conscience of the office, Susan Sargeant concocts a delicious mixture of Eve Arden and Ann Meara, stirred but never shaken. Julienne Greer, wearing quarterback-sized dress-suit shoulder pads, is a crisp and sneering schemer whose personal life is far less exciting than her career. Derik Webb’s baby face takes him halfway on the character’s journey as a green but aspiring ad man; his climactic confrontation ends the play on a sharp, high note.

I was entertained and intrigued by separate moments of Ad Wars, but felt myself being pulled between tones — here it’s ballsy, there it’s poignant — as well as among genres. The audience must simultaneously digest a tragedy about a war veteran’s sellout; a satire of the new, demographically charted American sales shtick; and a farce about savage office politics. Such a chaotic script does have its strengths — mainly that it provides an actor’s romper room, and Circle complies with some adroitly talented playmates. But eventually, the attentions of director and performers are divided by the script’s demands. Ad Wars becomes a wholesale liquidation of one playwright’s multiple, not-quite-realized ambitions.

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