Death of a Cell-Man 

SCHUMACHER

Playwrights' Center

In the opening scene of this play, Schumacher presents a short seminar on salesmanship. The phrase "Make that big sale!" is projected overhead, along with Schumacher's five steps for doing just that: contact, introduce, match/mirror, sell more, and close. Let's take these one at a time, shall we?

Contact. Pick up the phone and say, "Hello. How may I help you?" Schumacher has the audience repeat this greeting in concert to show us how easy it is. And remember, "There's a hole in every man the size of your product." Introduce. That is, introduce yourself to the client's vulnerabilities and needs. For instance, what does a black man need that he can't get on the job, in his community, from his own family? Schumacher pauses for effect. "Give the black man respect and he'll come to you like a dog." Match/Mirror. Be the person the client wants to be. "Be his superman." Gain his trust, and don't be afraid to exploit that trust. Sell more. Once you have the key to the client, you can open the doors to his innermost needs. Schumacher illustrates this point with the story of a salesman who sold not one but many pairs of Converse high-tops to a man without legs because "he sensed that that man had a want to need shoes." Close. Close the deal. "Get the signature on the check because . . . otherwise you've just entertained them for half an hour."

In the remainder of this 40-minute one-act, Schumacher is undone by his own technique. The seminar, the introduction to Schumacher--the man and his philosophy--remains my favorite part of the play. I particularly like Schumacher's closing directive to bring something to sell to the next seminar. Not that I didn't enjoy the rest of the play. It's also funny, and slightly horrifying, but it becomes progressively obscure in a symbolic way.

What's immediately evident is that Vera, whom Schumacher hires as his secretary, knows how to sell herself. She has the secretarial skills Schumacher requires and the body to seduce him, which she does. And then, in a coup as old as corporate structure (and then some), Vera becomes so efficient at her job that Schumacher is rendered expendable.

This much was clear, but strange elements that completely stumped me began popping up. Why, on the morning after Vera's seduction, does a second Vera appear, and this one male? Why, instead of simply being fired, is Schumacher turned into a sluggish, potato-chip-eating zombie? Why does Schumacher end up wearing the same sort of black slip as the two Veras? Why is he buried in his desk? Why do the sides of the desk collapse at the end of the play? At the time I couldn't begin to answer any of these questions. I felt like Jethro Bodine visiting the Museum of Modern Art.

The next morning I was debased enough to check the program for director's notes. There are none. But there's an illustration--like one you'd see in a biology textbook--depicting, step by step, the invasion of a cell by a virus: the invasion, viral reproduction, the destruction of the host cell, and the consummate diaspora of the viral offspring. Halfway through the sequence the viral DNA forms the word "Schumacher." Cute graphic, I thought, obviously the fruit of a liberal arts education. And then suddenly my right brain said hello to my left brain and I realized it was a metaphor.

Contact. The virus (salesman) attaches to the host cell (client) in the same way that Vera manipulates her job interview with Schumacher. Introduce. The viral DNA is introduced into the host cell. Analogously, Vera gets under Schumacher's skin--especially in the disco scene, when she seems to paralyze him, mouthing sweet somethings in his ear. Match/Mirror. This step now appears to be the most insidious, a sort of unholy conjugal union between virus and cell, salesman and client. In the play it's represented as a (tastefully simulated) act of fellatio that leaves Schumacher so exhausted and dazed that he's late for work. Sell more. The virus replicates, and more Veras appear. Even Schumacher winds up wearing a black slip identical to Vera's. Close. Close the deal. Schumacher is destroyed and the Veras are liberated. The desk, Schumacher's coffin, is the visual metaphor for the cell wall, and the destruction of the cell wall (when the sides of the desk collapse) aids the dispersion of the viral offspring.

Of course this is all very clever, and I feel like I've successfully competed in the home version of a surrealistic game show. But I wonder how many people, seeing this thing for the first time, would have put this all together during the show itself? The program includes the virus graphic, but without explanation. And no character in the play ever alludes to the metaphor. The big question now is, where does all this get us?

First of all, you can have a good time--I did, anyway--even when the play is symbolically opaque. Playwright-director Dexter Bullard's cynical, incisive sense of humor is enough to carry the play. Still, it's more edifying if you apprehend the microbiological viewpoint, which illuminates a sale as a process of infection, parasitism, and rapacious exploitation. It gives me the queasy suspicion that there's an unconscious sale involved in most human relations, a messy business unhindered by the membrane of even the best intentions. Remember, "There's a hole in every man the size of your product." And, next time, bring something to sell. It makes me wonder who's selling, who's buying, what's the product, and where's the hole?

Bullard makes up for the coyness of his virus metaphor with some deft direction: good timing and rhythm, visual and aural playfulness, and attention to character business. The production is also enhanced by Adam Buhler's occasional music, especially the sarcastically triumphant song, "You're hired!"

Stephen Colbert gives an inspired if somewhat wired performance as Schumacher. I like the way he creates the impression of having presented his sales seminar too many times already with the folksiness, mental pauses, and other gimmicks veteran hucksters use to freshen up a stale pitch. And his dissembling is funny. Colbert manages to be condescending, ingratiating, and outright manipulative without ever losing his sheen. The only time he seems rattled is during the brief audience involvement--which he solicits well enough, but doesn't know how to handle when he gets it.

Amanda Sullivan plays Vera, her characterization progressing from a sort of cool efficiency to a zomboid, hypnotic state. Overall, Sullivan's performance isn't as engaging as Colbert's, since she plays an abstraction rather than (like Colbert) a character embodying an abstraction. Still, she has her moments, and the very best is when she delivers a spooky, lifeless, astringently edited version of Schumacher's salesmanship seminar at the end of the play.

That last monologue, by Vera, gives me the creeps. Once again she goes over those five steps to "make that big sale." But this time the agenda is bled dry, devoid of whatever life Schumacher put in it. There's no sense of a product anymore--only the hole.

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