War of Words

There is one character in Ad Wars, Fran Wheatly, who's a feminist grad student, fresh-faced and ready to get her career started in advertising. The play in no way revolves around our Fran, and most of her lines are intended solely for laughs, but you kind of pity her. All the poor girl (played by Lauren N. Goode) wants is a little respect for what she does, but that will never happen when her recipe for success is a sad cocktail of gym memberships, a Wall Street Journal subscription, safe sex and morals. What she doesn't know is that a dollar would never be made in the ad industry if it were up to morals, because it's all about pimping the product like a five-buck whore--and the more makeup you put on it, the prettier it gets. Fran Wheatly is just one of six people assigned to create an advertising campaign for the Piles Drone, the military's newest weapon. With good lighting, a little soft music and a scantily dressed spokeswoman, they just might turn a death tool into another household name, like Clairol. They're romanticizing a bomb, making a machine with a 100 percent kill factor sexy. And why not? They sex up soap and shampoo, too.

Based on playwright Vince McKewin's true-life experiences, Circle Theatre's production of Ad Wars is about surviving in the merciless rat race of America's advertising business while memories of war are still seared in the mind. Though an ensemble performance, Ad Wars centers on the inner struggles of Patrick Boyle (Derik Webb), a cog in an agency that is fighting the competition to promote a bomb with the killing capacity, or "footprint," of 16,571 people. Before returning to his job in Manhattan, Boyle flew missions as a radar intercept officer in America's first war with Iraq. As the temptations of money, promotion and a new home in Brooklyn Heights approach, Boyle must choose between his ethics and all the materialistic pleasures a huge paycheck can supply.

Directed by and starring John S. Davies, Ad Wars, not unlike any sitcom you've ever seen, weaves the usual office politics into the mix with cardboard cut-outs of what "real" people act and look like. Davies plays the boss, Dick Hurley, a man who cares more about beating the bastards at Boeing than keeping his company from looking like a clan of warmongers. There's the ball-busting chick in a suit; the cocky, leather-clad (and inexplicably cocaine-addicted) art director; and, of course, Fran, our naïve trainee with sugarplum dreams of being a respected real woman in an industry that thrives on promoting the unattainable without ever having to follow through.

Sprinkled throughout the plot are other, less-developed stories. McKewin might have been trying to tease us with hints about bygone love affairs, poetic drug addiction and dog vomit (no, seriously), but little of this is ever resolved, much less mentioned twice by the final curtain. The subplots are pointless and ragged, seeming as though they were added to lengthen what would otherwise be a one-act play. The overall message is unclear, and it might as well have been titled: Ad Wars, How Patrick Boyle Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cash.

Cliff Stephens is amusing as Billy Davis, the man providing the agency with information about the Piles Drone (slogan: "more bodies for your buck"). Strangely enough, though, the funniest characters in Ad Wars are the ones never seen. Fred, the sardonic, sex-obsessed executive, is merely a voice on a speakerphone recommending that Hurley win over clients by sending each of them a hooker. There is also Victor, the media technician who projects one-liners onto the slides seen on televisions tucked into corners within the theater.

The TVs are an interesting addition to the set, providing the audience with close-up views of campaign ideas but also black-and-white security camera shots of the stage from different perspectives. Ad Wars follows Boyle and the others through a day where war is waged across a conference table. But what are they fighting for? The group finally decides to run ads for the bomb on the radio during rush hour, pushing a deadly weapon between tunes by U2 and Tom Petty. Ad Wars aims high but misses the target in its attempt to expose the corrupt underbelly of an advertising empire. The laughs are cheap and the thoughts are shallow. Where this so-called "explosive" comedy should pop, it merely fizzles.

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Leah Gerchario