"Make and Break," a British import, isn't quite a comedy; nor is it really a satire of crass and grasping businessmen. While Michael Frayn's play has some funny and biting moments, the Eisenhower Theater's production is more bittersweet than burlesque.
Peter Falk stars as a madly driven executive, head of a manufacturer of prefab walls and doors: "the complete wall system for all your walling problems," reads the corporate motto blazoned bilingually above the stage.
Joining Falk at a trade fair in Frankfurt, Germany, where the company has set up a hospitality suite cum wood-paneled display, are his sales team and a stalwart secretary, a lithe German cutie to grace the information booth, a snooping business rival, prospective clients from East and West and the parent company's chairman of the board -- who is rumored, darkly, to be tendering Falk's firm to the conglomerate British Paper.
Frayn, with a flair for telling detail seldom found in fiction or drama, has successfully evoked the workaday world of business: showing us, sympathetically, what makes the inhabitants tick. His story might be described as the lighter side of "Death of a Salesman": a few potentially leaden themes alchemized into air. The sudden death at play's end is sad but hardly tragic. Despite drastic change, it's back to business again.
John Garrard -- Falk's character -- is a fellow many of us have doubtless met: compulsive, creative, demanding -- yet disarmingly childlike and vulnerable. When he asks an underling "Use the product?" and gets a negative answer, Garrard is mildly shaken. "You mean you're not stealing the samples?" he marvels. "I thought all the reps built their homes out of samples."
The other main characters are also instantly recognizable as real human beings: Garrard's loyal sidekick, the tough but decent Tom Olley; Olley's outwardly sensible secretary Mrs. Rogers; a self-cultivated cynic named Frank Prosser; and a meek junior executive, Colin Hewlett -- meek, that is, in everything but his muscular Christianity. "We had over a thousand people coming forward," Colin proudly recounts of an outdoor revival meeting. "Is that firm orders or just inquiries?" Frank sneers.
The largely British-born supporting cast is first-rate, especially Biff McGuire as the avuncular Tom and Jim Piddock playing the mild-mannered evangelist Colin. Falk, for whom this London hit was altered slightly to accommodate an American, gives an appealingly frenetic performance, proceeding with the monomaniacal indirection of a corporate "Columbo." From the minute he arrives in Frankfurt, he has no trouble at all holding his own on stage. MAKE AND BREAK -- At the Eisenhower Theater through May 7.