Encore Michigan

Detroit Rep’s world premiere ‘Williston’ probes the slag of corporate life

Review June 09, 2019 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.–In corporate America, things and people are rarely what they seem. It’s a bloodsport of survival, fear, attack, politics and strategizing how you are going to step on and over the person in the cubicle or office next to yours.

The Detroit Repertory Theater’s Michigan premiere of Adam Seidel’s Williston, directed by Casaundra Freeman, captures some of this angst, carnage and despair.

Barb (Kelly Pino) is a hardened, sarcastic regional director for Smith Oil. She and Larry (Harold Uriah Hogan) have converged at Williston, a small town in oil shale country, trying to get a Native American holding 14,000 acres to sign over his mineral rights lease to the company. They have been trying to pull this off for a few years without success. This time, they are accompanied by Tom (David Wolber) the young, newbie at Smith who is “the numbers guy,” to try and help them finally close the deal.

The setting, executed by Harry Wetzel, is a bit odd. This is a nothing town with no real hotel or motel. The three of them are actually sharing some kind of trailer–two single beds and a rollaway cot-two men and a woman, which seems a bit of a reach in this day and age. But the playwright points out that in the boomtown times of an oil town, billeting can be an adventure. The room is perfectly done, shabby and worn. Casaundra Freeman’s direction is taut, and her pacing of the story is especially evident. With all the action happening in one crappy trailer, it needs to move along it does.

Seidel mostly captures the dynamic of what goes on in a company that may or may not be on the brink of an acquisition, inside the head of a man who is nearing but not ready for retirement, and inside the soul of a career woman who wonders why she gave up a family life for this. As this is a premiere and still early days of the show being performed (it was performed in NYC too), Seidel will undoubtedly smith and tinker the script going forward. For example, there is something at the end of the play concerning Larry that just wouldn’t happen in any corporate setting and situation. It’s one of the things that make me wonder if Seidel has ever really worked at companies. He has many plays to his credit, but has he lived the nightmare of corporate backstabbing, or has he just seen it in the movies? There is a distance between the story he set out to write and what comes off in the script and dialogue that he can hopefully close in subsequent edits.

Wolber has to make a transition of character in the story, which he does with deftness. Pino’s Barb is hard without being stereotype. Hogan’s Larry has added dimension because he is both older and African-American, which exemplifies both his vulnerability and the fact that he has had to work three times as hard to get where he is than a white person in the oil industry. But here again, Seidel has issues with putting truly believable words and reactions into Larry’s mouth. [An email from the playwright points out that he wrote Larry to be white, but the Rep cast him as African-American.]

In terms of depicting the cesspool that big business can be, one thinks of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” a bit here. But Mamet’s dialogue and plot twists seem so authentic because he himself had worked in a real estate office at one point in his early life. He not only captured the reality down to the characters’ bones, but he infused his characters with the half-formed sentences that permeate actual real-life dialogue with the listener never missing a clause or predicate of understanding. There are some things, details, that Seidel does get right about the oil business that makes me think he at least had someone with hands-on knowledge contribute.

Script flaws aside, and those are subjective, what takes place on the stage is quite good and the actors come with their A-game. The many ways corporations seek to dominate people, screw the environment for profit and treat everyday lives of people like so many beads in an abacus are prevalent and always have been. And I suspect, stories that depict this, even as corporations continue to support the arts, will be more and more the lifeblood of the stage.