Hell on Wheels

Corporate America is a war zone, and Laura Hembree's Car Pool shows just how the high casualty rate can get when the suit-wearing soldiers march into battle armed with little more than their leather briefcases and a mission of self-preservation. Dark, bone-hard and painfully smart, Hembree's script explores the effects of a culture that is simultaneously driven by Machiavellian workers and living in fear of downsizing; and under Peter Webster's sharp direction, Stages' production of this relatively new play cuts right to the tough, violent core of a world shaped by an anonymous bureaucracy, pointless rules and cutthroat schemes.

John Gow's stunning apocalyptic set foreshadows the sad lives of Hembree's five characters. A gray trash-covered stretch of highway is all we see. The lights are either blinding and white or shadowy and vague -- nothing in between. The characters march onto the stage in soldierly precision. At first glance, the five men look exactly alike, even though each wears a different suit and carries a different briefcase, but as played by these fine actors, each worker represents a distinct archetype from the corporate landscape.

Dr. Arthur Binford (William Hardy) is the kindly, wise old senior who has been with the company for decades; Gene Dickman (Manning Mpinduzi-Mott) follows the rules and keeps his nose to the grindstone, no matter the costs to his dignity; Carl Vitali (Timothy Wrobel) is a know-nothing hotheaded youngster who grates on everyone with his empty boasts; football-obsessed Raymond Bloch (David Born) drinks Yoo-hoo, eats chips and wears inappropriate ties to work; and sweet-faced Willard Burkey (Jim Lawrence) talks endlessly about his wife and kids as he burns inside with silent rage. None of these sad sacks is any more equipped than the other to deal with the cruelties of the workplace.

Appropriately enough, these corporate soldiers work for a company that manufactures military equipment. They drive into the "compound" every day, rolling slowly past "building B," where all the recently fired losers are dumped for "out-placement training." The men gaze out their rolled-up car windows at the ominous, fog-enshrouded building, their stricken eyes gone hollow with fear.

Visions of death haunt these characters: They drive by grisly car accidents, poring over every detail. "The sorry fucker didn't even see it coming," says Carl. They talk about people getting "axed" by the company. One man's wife gets cancer; another goes senile. The threat of violence terrorizes the compressed air of the car.

The men also fight their own fears. At first, they taunt each other like small boys, but when things get bad at the office, they beat on each other like terrified foot soldiers who have lost their way during battle. Through it all, they keep driving back into the trenches every single day, losing another bit of their tiny souls along the flat stretch of highway that takes them straight into the war zone of work.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lee Williams