Money changes everything

It's a movie cliché that when someone is possessed by a spirit or Lucifer himself, the bewitched one takes on the mannerisms and speech patterns of the possessor. The effects can be subtle: demon-possessed victims singing a Rolling Stones tune in Fallen. Or they can be a bit more, um, obvious: Linda Blair hornking up a gout of split-pea soup in The Exorcist. Too often now, Hollywood tends toward the projectile-vomiting side of the spectrum, relying on special effects instead of a solid, convincing performance.

Possession is a great exercise for actors and, in Theatre Quorum's No One Sees the Video, Linda Coleman gets a full-body workout as Liz, a housewife whose husband, Paul, doesn't come home one night -- leaving her a farewell message on the answering machine, a teenage daughter to raise, and no source of income. Though Martin Crimp's play is comedy, not horror, and Liz is changed, not possessed, the effect is the same. Her transformation begins when a young woman named Karen (Erin McGrew) stops Liz on the street and asks her to do a survey about shopping. Liz is in a hurry, so Karen offers to fill in all the answers except the blank for marital status, which Liz can't answer -- she doesn't know whether her husband's ever coming home. Karen marks Liz "married" anyway so she'll qualify for a "depth interview" and the cash gift that accompanies it.

Despite her reservations about the company doing the interviews and her unwillingness to let anyone tell her what to think, Liz meets Karen's boss, Colin Parker (Matthew Stephen Tompkins), at his office a week later. Colin is loud, obnoxious, and fidgety, drumming on himself, the desk, and the chairs while he asks Liz questions. It's his job to interview women so companies can design products to "fill the void" in their lives. The item of the moment is frozen Italian meals, and Liz isn't buying the scheme -- she doesn't think people should rely on objects to complete their lives. The marketing industry sickens her, and she sees Colin with his outsized zeal and boyish excitement as the epitome of this evil empire. When she notices a video camera running in the corner, taping her interview, he assures her that "no one sees the videotape"; that it exists only so he won't have to take notes. When Liz admits she's no longer married, Colin has to disqualify her -- in the marketing world, hers doesn't count as a real household since she has no husband or job -- and he admits the tape is actually used by his client for marketing research. Colin offers her the cash gift anyway, plus a job at the company. She refuses both, saying, "It's about nothing. These questions. All you can say about it is what it isn't. It's a void, you're creating a void."

Liz goes home empty-handed. But she's desperate enough for money that she eventually accepts the job. She then enters the seedy yet comical world of marketing, and her metamorphosis from righteous housewife to manipulative businesswoman begins. When she interviews a survey participant named Sally (McGrew again), Colin's wheedling tactics manifest. She adopts his pet phrases and questioning technique, replacing his brusque smugness with motherly impatience. Liz discovers she's a natural in a field she despises, just about the same time Colin tells her daughter (played by Laura Bailey), "I'll tell you something. We all turn, Jo, into the kind of people we used to despise."

Crimp, who won a Tony Award in 1997 for his translation of Ionesco's The Chairs, uses some sinister repetition to drive home Liz's transformation. The scene in which Colin interviews Liz is repeated in the second act, only this time Liz is interviewing Sally. Crimp litters the play with repetitions of scenes and dialogue as artfully as Theatre Quorum sprinkles the set with product placements such as Twiglets, Ramen, and Pizza Hut. Liz's metamorphosis seems complete when she rants about the righteous indignation of a survey participant named Linda -- who reacts precisely the way she did when Colin interviewed her. Liz even mocks her for walking out and refusing the cash gift. The creepiest scene comes when Liz apes Colin's relaxation technique, a breathing and hand-movements combo that resembles a sort of Tai Chi for stressed marketing sleazeballs.

As Liz morphs into Colin, Colin fades into someone smaller and meeker and begins showing human emotions instead of constantly maintaining his business demeanor. He's distracted, his drumming slows, and he continually asks everyone whether their hearts are in this kind of hardball marketing, when his obviously is not. A cycle emerges: Everyone becomes the one they hate, but being this amoral person grinds them down.

No One Sees the Video could be a depressing tale about people trading their spirits and ideals for money and success, but Crimp's journey is a laugh-out-loud funny look at how creepy the world of marketing and product development can be. It never wears; the three acts whiz by.

Colin's quirks are only part of the comedy. McGrew offers laughs as Karen and Sally (she seems to be channeling Bubble from the BBC show Absolutely Fabulous, only Sally is a crude brunette, not a charmingly clueless blonde). Kent Williams takes on several characters, as he did in Theatre Quorum's Turn of the Screw last year. He plays Liz's client and two drunk bar patrons. One jokes with Colin in London; the other flirts with Liz on a business trip to northeastern England. The latter barfly stings her -- he says any woman who earns good money in London must be making it on her back.

Though Crimp set the play in his native England, the idea of companies using common folk to help decide what consumers need to "fill the void," as Colin says, is especially applicable here, where almost every trip to the mall brings shoppers in contact with a survey girl who demands just a minute of their time, and takes five instead. The cast members' accents are understated (Steven Blount, who plays Linda's husband, Paul, nails a northern England working-class accent), and the dialogue zings like arrows out of a crossbow, hitting its mark each time with sharpened barbs.

No One Sees the Video is performed in the Mesquite Arts Center's black box theater, with each of the play's locations set several feet from the next in the long, dark room. The company's office contains a desk, two chairs, a television, and the video camera. It's so nondescript and empty, it could be anywhere and anytime, making Colin's warning about people becoming that which they hate echo long after the laughs.

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Shannon Sutlief