Thursday, November 29, 2001
The humor in 'Motor Trade' helps hide its dark side

WHO: Onstage Theatre Company

WHAT: "The Motor Trade," by Norm Foster

WHERE: School House Culture Center, 2050 Oak Park Blvd., Pleasant Hill

WHEN: Thursdays-Saturdays through Dec. 15

HOW MUCH: $10 with student and senior discounts CALL: 925-944-9006


With Canadian playwright Norm Foster becoming increasingly popular with area theater companies, it might be time to stop viewing him simply as the Neil Simon of the Great White North. Perhaps, instead, we should embrace him as the northern heir to the Simon style, if we agree there is more to King Neil than an assembly of punch lines. Like Simon, Foster stirs a lot of humanity into his comedy, but unlike the comedy king, the Canadian has a dark side that is little hidden by the laughter.

That's clearly evident in the two plays currently on local stages -- "Jupiter in July" at Walnut Creek's Playhouse West, and this one, "The Motor Trade" at the Onstage Theatre in Pleasant Hill. It could be that Foster's popularity grows from the fact that he is one of the few playwrights creating modern Everyman comedies. His heroes are not necessarily rich, famous or even slightly glamorous. Generally, they are hapless lower-middle class souls who work the classic 9-to-5, have equal portions of trouble at home and on the job, and are making things even more complicated by trying to straighten their lives out. Basically, they are us -- painfully ordinary, occasionally glib, and essentially foundering in a stormy sea of circumstances beyond our own control, whether it's being stuck in a theater where you don't belong, or hopelessly mired in a failing car dealership and marriage, like Phil Moss (Sal Russo), hero of "The Motor Trade."

The show opens on a set that appears disturbingly familiar to the sales office location of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," but instead of being a high-tension, big bucks real estate office, this is the sales room of a middling Canadian auto dealership, where we find Moss and his partner, Dan Torelli (Wayne McRice), waiting out a blizzard in hopes of customers turning out in the snow. They pass the time in a good-natured sort of banter that quickly becomes both very funny and more revealing than either man had intended. And then, the storm tosses in a woman (Dorothea Rastegar) who turns out to be a tax agent rather than a customer, and she begins to unravel Moss' attempts at keeping body and soul together by fudging on his income tax returns. Torelli, the more philosophical of the pair, is increasingly shocked by the revelations and inadvertently does his part to mess things up even more.

By the time the second act starts, the dealership and its partners are roasting freely. Moss' wife (Katrina Baumgartner) has shown up to rub more salt in the wounds inflicted by her leaving her hubby for a Dodge salesman. The story moves swiftly between a sly domestic comedy and a bittersweet modern tragedy, where the lives of all four characters unravel out of control by the show's end. Director Helen Means has done a fine job pacing the play to retain all of the comedy, while creating a dramatic undertone that pervades even the funniest moments. The acting is uniformly well-done, with Rastegar and Baumgartner making the most of relatively small roles, and McRice and Russo doing an excellent job as the car-dealing partners. Russo gets the meatiest role, and delivers a believable performance to make the Moss character something of a lovable thief.

Pat Craig is the Times theater critic. He can be reached at 925-945-4736 or at