Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is courting an interesting potential audience with his new play at Manhattan Theatre Club, Based on a Totally True Story: geeks.
Not just one kind of geek, though, but many. Movie geeks. Comic book geeks. New York geeks, gay geeks, geeks with divorced parents... you get the picture. Any of a dozen specific interests, quirks, or traits that might make one "different" (by whatever definition) or "outside the mainstream" (equally hard to define) might be fodder for Aguirre-Sacasa to exploit in exploring how people, geeky or not, must let go of themselves if they want to hold onto someone else.
You don't need to fall into one of these specific categories to understand or enjoy the play, which has been directed by MTC Director of Artistic Production Michael Bush, but it might help. Rest assured, though, that's not because the playwright is so into himself or his own interest that he can't draw you into them: Aguirre-Sacasa knows better than that, even if he's based his central character, playwright and comic book author Ethan Keene, on himself.
No, it's because if you can't identify with the characters' preferences and peccadilloes, you'll have to focus instead on the worn-smooth territory of the play's dramatic landscape. As likeable as Ethan is while chasing personal and professional success through the obstacle course of contemporary life, and as amiable as Carson Elrod plays him, there's not enough here of unique substance to make Based on a Totally True Story exciting on its own terms.
What's present is a simple romance, between Ethan and Michael Sullivan (Pedro Pascal), an aspiring novelist and "cultural critic" for the Village Voice. With Ethan's career on the rise - his obtusely metaphorical play has been optioned by a Hollywood producer (Kristine Nielsen) to be adapted into a horror movie - he's beginning to lose track of the things and people that are most important to him. This includes his own family, which is falling apart because Ethan's father (Michael Tucker) has decided he no longer loves his wife.
Ethan's determined to mend (or at least cover up) the shattered pieces of his life, which might mean sacrificing either Michael or high-paying film stardom. Making compromises, whether about his film (which gets more by-the-numbers melodramatic as the producer tinkers with it), his family, or his relationship with Michael (which come in the form of a bleached-blond Hollywood hunk, played with a disaffecting disconnect by Erik Heger) doesn't come easy to Ethan, and so, he comes to see, neither does life.
Bush directs with a peppy smoothness, but can't do much to curtail the show's choppy, episodic nature, or the unfocused narration (by too many characters) that threatens to push the proceedings into the realm of the pretentious. Designers Anna Louizos (sets), Linda Cho (costumes), and Traci Klainer (lights) have concocted a delightful color-coding scheme for the show's look that taps into Ethan's tendency to compartmentalize every aspect of his life; even that is generally more clever than the show.
The performers, except for the chiseled-from-plastic Heger (who, to be fair, is stuck playing a series of chiseled-from-plastic characters), impress with their quick-witted comic deliveries, which give almost all the lines humorous rhythms probably not endemic to them on the page. This is natural territory for Christopher Durang muse Nielsen, who's restraining herself admirably here (and rightfully so, in the wake of her success in Durang's Miss Witherspoon earlier this year), but Elrod and Pascal are also convincingly at home with it.
As real as they make their concerns for us, they can't make us feel that we've seen and heard all this more insightfully elsewhere. Perhaps comic-book lovers who know Aguirre-Sacasa from his work on Marvel Comics's The Sensational Spider-man will come to Based on a Totally True Story and discover something new about his work, about the theatre, or about life. Hardcore theatre geeks, however, might have a decent time, but aren't likely to learn even that much.
Based on a Totally True Story