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Theatre review: The Motor Trade mingles comedy with pathos

ELISSA BARNARD ARTS REPORTER Published July 24, 2014 - 5:44pm

 
Halifax
 

Jeff Schwager is Dan, a car salesman who wants out of the business, and David Rossetti is Phil, his smooth-talking partner and a man whose life is falling apart, in Norm Foster’s comedy The Motor Trade, at Festival Antigonish Summer Theatre to Aug. 30.
 

David Rossetti delivers a marvellous portrait of a dislikable character in Norm Foster’s The Motor Trade. He plays Phil Moss, an oily, smooth-talking, overly confident, crude and stereotypical car salesman. He’s almost too real in this masterful performance.

The play’s opening phrase is Phil’s line: “Goddamn snow.” “You just have to overlook the words,” a lady said outdoors during intermission with all the crosses and church towers of St. Francis Xavier University campus overlooking the small, ivy-covered theatre.

Foster never writes a one-note comedy and The Motor Trade walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy. It’s like Death of a Salesman meets Glengarry Glen Ross meets Danny DeVito in Matilda.

The comedy, which is more amusing and poignant than laugh-out-loud funny, is set in a car dealership owned by Phil Moss and his more refined and serious partner, Dan. It’s a snowy day in 1990. Phil’s wife has just left him for a Dodge dealer, Dan wants out of the business and Phil is being audited by Revenue Canada. As the snow falls the fissures in the two men’s 21-year-old relationship break open in a funny, brilliantly structured revelation of secret after secret.

Known for writing about the Everyman, Foster crafts a true picture of middle-aged men dealing with failed dreams, unhappy love lives and betrayals. The comic drive in The Motor Trade is Phil’s irrepressible spirit. He is unfazed by all the crap life throws at him and that he throws at other people.

Director Emmy Alcorn charges up The Motor Trade with lots of movement, a fast pace and a good differentiation, aided by the actors, of the two men. Jeff Schwager’s Dan is the perfect foil for Rossetti’s star turn as Phil. Schwager is taciturn, visibly upset beneath a stony expression and given to funny outbursts of temper. He holds his body in while Rossetti is all hyperkinetic energy. The rocket-fuelled first act flies by, ending with the appearance of the Revenue Canada auditor, a fierce, polite and unhappy character played by the always stageworthy Shelley Thompson.

The second act is blessed by the appearance of Genevieve Steele, electric as Phil’s lively and somewhat wise ex-wife Darlene.

Ian Pygott’s excellent set adds to the gritty reality of Dan and Phil’s world. The dealership office is a sprawling space of grey desks, brown doors, stale doughuts, Styrofoam coffee cups and car pictures hanging on the walls. The blue walls offset the bleakness of the interior space.

The costumes, designed by Emlyn Murray and Myra Sloan, are the dull, cheap suits and ties associated with car salesmen, and Darlene’s rig is great, all miniskirt and black leather jacket to match her crazy ponytail. There is good attention to hair in this production. Thompson’s clean, well-brushed and tidy hair contrasts with Rossetti’s slicked-back locks.

The Motor Trade is not an escapist comedy. Foster burrows into a real human place and leaves his audience wondering about these characters after the play is over.

The Motor Trade runs from 8 to 9:45 p.m., with an intermission, and is at Festival Antigonish to Aug. 30, running in repertory with Be My Baby, and, as of Aug. 7, Venus in Fur.