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Review: 'Seller Door' strong but goes too far

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The tricky thing with art — the hard part, if you will — is knowing when to quit. When have you made your point well, and when have you gone too far?

Larry Mitchell’s “Seller Door,” which opened at the Lawrence Arts Center on Friday night, doesn’t quite hit that sweet spot between not enough and too much. Thoughtful and clever, it nevertheless goes too far in its attempt to comment on how we allow ourselves to be duped and the consequences we pay for it.

The play is divided into two very different acts. In the first, we meet a Barker (Jay Maus), who is tasked with getting people to go through a red door onstage. Much of his dialogue is directed at the audience, breaking the fourth wall and bringing them into his confidence as he relates to us the challenges of his job. The rest is aimed at potential “customers” he attempts to persuade to go through the door, and he receives regular calls on a red, rotary-dial phone from an unseen boss, who is constantly checking on his progress (and never seems satisfied).

The people he meets are all archetypes of folks we meet in everyday life. There is Harold (Jason Keezer), a directionless leisure lover, who seeks some sort of purpose for his life. There are Jack (Jerry Mitchell) and Jill (Monica Greenwood), consummate consumers, who believe everyone else is getting something they’re not. Fiery Allison (Jacqueline Gruneau) protests the door, marching against its existence but hypocritically is drawn to it. Billy (Janette Salisbury) wants to be included but is held back by meaningless restrictions. And Jean (Bryce Ostrom) is a criminal, who we learn used to be a Barker. They all have their own reasons for going through the door, and the Barker alters his sales pitch to each individual to offer the right enticement.

The second act focuses on those who went through, what they find on the other side of the door, and what becomes of them. It’s here that the show’s subtitle, “A Play of Consequence,” becomes meaningful.

The first act is absolutely brilliant. Well-written by Mitchell and perfectly played by Maus, Act I captures the soul of a career salesman. Barker constantly repeats the mantras of his company. “We are not salesman; we are saviors. We’re here to help the people,” he says over and over again when he needs to buck himself up. “A.B.O.: Always be opening.” Barker is a man who has bought into the mission statements of his company, and he wraps himself in them like a security blanket, even if he is not entirely certain what he is selling.

During down periods between customers, he fires off one tongue-twister after another to keep his patter warmed up and ready to go. He obsessively sweeps the stage, keeping his selling area clean and presentable, so there is never a barrier to making that sale.

And haunting him throughout the act is the specter of his quota. He must get five people through the door today. The calls from his boss scare him. As the day winds on and he is coming up short, desperation sets in. He becomes more agitated, less confidant, more worried.

Maus is terrific in the role, expertly capturing the essence of every commission-based salesperson feeling the pressure to make quota. The mantras and verbal exercises are weapons in his war against despair. He gives himself pep talk after pep talk, so he’ll have the energy and the faux confidence necessary to close that next sale.

It’s unfortunate that “Seller Door” isn’t a one-act play. Mitchell raises all the questions he needs to with this frenetic story of a salesman just trying to get people to buy.

In the second act, Mitchell makes the mistake of showing us what’s beyond the door. We find out just what each of these rubes has bought. Naturally, it’s nothing good, and Mitchell has constructed a nice homage to Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.” To his further credit, he leaves the biggest questions unanswered: who is the mysterious boss and why does he want people to go through the door in the first place?

But one wishes Mitchell had realized the strength of his play is on the outside of the door, not within. He’s trying to make a point about the consequences of falling for a sales pitch without careful investigation of the product, but he doesn’t need to show us why the product was a lemon. It’s obvious from the narrative of the first act.

Maus’ Barker is afraid of his boss. It’s not just the potential of being fired for not making quota. There is something sinister about the unseen and unheard voice on the other end of the line. We get that going through the door is akin to Eve eating the apple in the Garden of Eden.

Barker will say anything to sell his product. He tailors his patter to his customers, telling them whatever he thinks they need to hear to buy. As soon as he’s got them through the threshold, he slams the door in their faces, making sure they can’t reconsider at the last second. He’s clearly unethical. He knows there is tragedy on the other side of that door.

And that’s all we need to know. The horror of what’s happening, the lesson of being more discerning before buying in, is greater when we don’t know what becomes of the people who go through.

The production is well staged. Mitchell also directs it, and he does a fine job with a simple set, making good use of the tiny Black Box Theater in the Arts Center. The lighting is especially clever in the second act, a fine achievement given there are only four lights hung in the corners of the stage.

Maus’ co-stars render solid performances. In particular, Jerry Mitchell is funny as the not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is Jack, Ostrom is chilling as the too-cool criminal, and Gruneau is strong as the righteous Allison.

“Seller Door” is a thought-provoking piece of original theater produced well. But it falls victim to that often-troublesome obstacle to making great art — knowing when the point has been made.

“Seller Door” continues May 9 and 10 in the Black Box Theater at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 843-2787 or online at lawrenceartscenter.org.

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