If you are unfamiliar with Martin Crimp's dark comedy Dealing With Clair (and since this is the 1988 play's Portland premiere, you probably are), prepare to get drunk on a pleasurably stiff cocktail of comedy and cruelty. If you do know the play, you should still see this production for its provocative imagery and bracing performances, which bring Crimp's deliberately unlikable characters to grandly monstrous life.
Most of the plot is set in a suburban London home that belongs to callous, affluent couple Mike and Liz (Joseph Workman and Taylor Jean Grady). They agree to sell the house to a family in Shropshire, but back out of the deal after their suave and shrewd real estate agent, Clair (Amanda Mehl), urges them to hold out for a better offer. Enter James (Gerry Birnbach), an American businessman who is arrogant, creepy and long-winded—and, because he's willing to pay more in cash, he's exactly what Mike, Liz and Clair are looking for.
James is essentially a human hall of mirrors. He seems wealthy, but we never see evidence of his fortune. He says he's married, but his wife never appears. The only thing we know for certain is that he harbors a love of talk (about everything from travel to how people misuse the word "girl") and a fixation on Clair. Dealing With Clair is less the story of Clair than it is the story of James' obsession—and how that obsession grows from private fantasy to violent reality.
Birnbach's performance offers a master class in the behavior of predatory men (the ways in which James invades Clair's personal space are sickening to behold). He is also the most flamboyant member of a cast that is otherwise restrained yet indelible. Even though more than a week has passed since I saw the play, I can still picture Mehl pinching her lips together with impatience and fury (her memorable facial expressions help fill out an underwritten role), and I can still hear Workman's drunken laughter as Mike lies on the couch, lost in a haze of self-amusement.
Dealing With Clair also stars the work of lighting designer Robert Osterhout, who fills the stage with a blood-red gleam during scene transitions—a fitting choice for a play that is largely about class conflict and the ways in which it begets metaphorical and literal carnage. When Crimp draws parallels between Clair and Anna (Katherine Rose), the Italian nanny who looks after Mike and Liz's unseen child, he isn't indulging his love of narrative echoes—he's reminding us that both Clair and Anna are viewed as commodities by the play's wealthier characters.
Crimp, in other words, is attentive to misogyny, but more interested in classism. While James may not actually be rich, the appearance of wealth and power puts him in a position to torment Clair. And while Clair clearly has more money than Anna, she receives roughly the same level of respect from Mike and Liz. The scene in which Mike cheerily makes racist remarks about Italians in front of Anna is nauseating, but so is the scene where Liz says that Clair "looks like a waitress," as if there could be no greater shame.
A lesser playwright might have allowed Dealing With Clair to devolve into a bland lecture on income inequality. Yet Crimp is too crafty to let that happen. Simply put, the play is funny—and director Aaron Filyaw and the actors know it. When Mike describes selling houses as "a hateful business," you laugh because Workman delivers the line in an airy voice that highlights Mike's inability to conceive that it's greedy men like him who make it detestable. He and Crimp understand that laughter is the best revenge against the ruling class. The punch line is the revolution.
SEE IT: Dealing With Clair is at Bridgetown Conservatory of Musical Theatre, 6635 N Baltimore Ave., publiccitizentheatre.org. 8 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, through June 30. $15-$25.