Fool for a Client
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
February 28, 2008
What do you do with a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman? Imagine you're at home, relaxing, settling into a book, a movie, a slice of cheesecake, a telephone conversation. The doorbell rings. You put down whatever you're doing and open the door, only to be greeted by a nice, smiling young man trying to sell you a vacuum cleaner, an item you probably don't want and definitely cannot afford. Look at the smile: you know it's fake and you definitely know it wants something. That smile asks how you're doing. His teeth ask if he can take a moment of your time. Your book, movie, cheesecake, phone are waiting. You don't want to be rude though. He is only doing his job.
He's persistent though, asks all kinds of questions, answers yours with follow-up questions of his own. He throws some dirt on the floor and gives you a demonstration of his product. It's good. In fact, it sucks up the dirt nicely. And it does make the carpet cleaner. And whether or not you need the thing, he's a charmer. He's kind, friendly, gracious, understanding, and besides, after a while you realize he is only doing his job. You break down. You buy the vacuum cleaner.
You've just been had.
Or have you?
Fool for a Client, Mark Whitney's entertaining one-man show, is not about vacuum cleaners. It's an autobiographical tale covering the roughly 30 years of Whitney's professional life, which begins after high school as a vacuum cleaner salesman and ends with him successfully defending himself three times against the United States Department of Justice, the first and "only high school educated pro-se defendant in history to defeat [them]." During this time, he marries the woman of his dreams, starts and maintains a successful marketing agency, buys several pieces of property, opens a chain of Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream franchises in Vermont, fails to pay his taxes, spends some time in a maximum security federal penitentiary, and becomes, in my opinion, the foremost amateur attorney in the history of the United States.
It's a fascinating tale, full of unexpected twists, some of them hilarious, some of them hard to believe. (Full disclosure: while I suspect some of them have been embellished for dramatic purposes, I am unbelievably gullible and believed every last one of them.) He tells this tale simply, with three costume changes and minimal props (watch out for the lawn darts), with an amiable tone and the timing of a comic.
The simplicity is deceptive, though, and for that we come back to our friendly neighborhood vacuum cleaner salesman. There are certain techniques a salesman employs to create a need for the product he's selling—fear, negotiation, compassion, and among them. As a salesman, Whitney is able to use these needs to achieve his ends: money, a house, a means to support the woman he loves and the family they've created. But as a citizen he is able to use these techniques to take on a system and this is where Fool for a Client intrigues as well as frustrates.
The title comes from the adage "Anyone who acts as his own attorney has a fool for a client." Whitney mentions that people may see it as a maxim created by lawyers to create a need for the lawyers who created it. But Whitney is clearly no idiot. His script is intelligent, his behavior fiendishly clever. His story perfectly illustrates that one person, using his ingenuity and intelligence, can go up against a monolith and emerge victorious. In a society which asks very little of its citizenry or leaves the majority of its people feeling powerless, this is no small achievement.
The problem with Fool for a Client, and it is a significant one if Whitney hopes to develop it, is that we never get a sense of where the impetus to tell his story derives. Is he simply enamored of his own ingenuity, or are there larger, more important issues he wishes to point out? Whitney gives every indication that the answer is the latter. In laying out the art of selling vacuum cleaners in the beginning of the show, he states that the person asking questions is usually the person in control of the transaction. If this is the case, I would like to use that power, follow his example, and exercise my rights as an audience member and concerned citizen looking for a place in the larger picture by posing a question: Mr. Whitney, you have created a show full of insight. But in the interest of gaining insight into the value of your experiences, what is it exactly you're selling?