Review by Sander Gusinow
I wonder how far writer Stephen Spurling has come since high school. Not far enough, it seems, if he still thinks his unfledged ‘Death of a Shoe Salesman’ has a life anywhere outside the halls of academia. Sophomoric in every sense of the word, his script exploits the plight of the mentally ill to deliver cartoonish nonsense and unwittingly cruelty.
Three mentally disturbed individuals, Wanda, Roger, and Charles, await the arrival of a psychologist in Wanda’s apartment. For some reason it’s set in the 1980’s, although aside from the overblown costumes and the program note, one would have no way of knowing. A shoe salesman arrives and tricks the group into believing his wares are psychiatrically therapeutic. He then drops dead, and the group scrambles to cover it up before the real psychologist arrives.
Sarah Pencheff delivers the most endearing performance as Wanda, a mime-enthusiast nymphomaniac who just wants everything to run smoothly. What could have been an imbecilic ditz, Pencheff gives an earnest portrayal of someone who wants to get better (or at least, better enough to find a husband). Scott Lilly is adorably pitiable as the howling, panaphobic Charles; Lilly’s craft brings to mind a young Michael Showalter.
Unfortunately, the characters of ‘Shoe Salesman’ are decidedly idiotic, the humor of the play comes from just how mean or stupid they are. The caustic Roger is always the quickest to insult, and eventually admits he only attends these groups to crack wise at the crazies. He’s Spurling’s snappily-dressed authorial avatar; making fun of the insane, and hoping the audience goes down his spiteful rabbit hole.
Director Christopher Noffke is first and foremost a choreographer. It’s murky as to whether he’s unable or unwilling to ensoul his work with any sort of nuance, but chaos reigns supreme in ‘Shoe Salesman.’ Sight gags, messy tantrums, and maniacal screeching are served up without respite. He does have skill as an onstage craftsman, the gags that required precision were all razor’s edge, but his play buckles under an unrefined hand.
An immature and anarchic play, Pencheff and Lilly are the only elements buoying the show above complete unwatchability; and even then, it’s only occasional. I would call the show a vacuous exercise in cretinism, but it would sound too cerebral. No, ‘Death of a Shoe Salesman’ is simply an uncomfortable bellyflop.