It's usually disquieting to realize that the play you're watching is likely not the one the author intended to write. A superb new example of this is Anne Fizzard's Good Opinions at the Midtown International Theatre Festival. This sparkling comedy wants only to spin a romantic, funny fairy tale for theatre-savvy audiences, but while it succeeds, its ulterior motives are darker and much more provocative.
That's hardly surprising, as a spoonful of laughter has long helped bitter medicine go down. But seldom do plays tilt at the ivory towers of the theatre establishment to the extent that Good Opinions does, let alone in such a roundabout way that you could just as easily miss it as catch it square in the face. And it all starts with the premise that a coat-check girl at an upstart Theatre District eatery is able to quote - almost word for word - theatre reviews in The New York Times weeks before they're published.
When the young woman, Adele (Nicole Taylor), is heard trashing a previewing show (a musical of Frankenstein) by the show's creative team, her remarks initially provoke anger. When they reappear in the guise of a review by Philip Leahy Repka on opening night, they arouse interest, primarily coming from the show's director, Evan Schwartz (Kevin Stapleton), who believes he's found the way to turn his shows' fortunes around before they're jeopardized.
A romance of sorts follows, with Evan trying to prevent Adele from learning his true motives and his girlfriend and coworker Francine (Joan Pelzer) from learning about Adele. As with many fairy tales, the ending is never really in doubt; despite a few twists along the way, the story ends up in the usual place, and the participants - for the most part - manage to live happily ever after.
Yes, Fizzard sticks close to convention, but she knows what she's doing, and makes the familiar trip a great deal of fun. So does director Katrin Hilbe, who mixes magical realism with slapdash, farcical pacing that gives the show precisely the breezy, otherworldly feel it needs.
Neither Taylor nor Stapleton gives a razor-sharp performance: She's essentially playing the head-in-the-clouds heroine and he the grounded, handsome prince; still, they're a great onstage couple with real romantic and comedic chemistry. The other casting is a bit stiffer; Stephen Morfesis and Wende O'Reilly are solid as Adele's bemused coworkers, and Pelzer is fine as the emotionally and artistically spurned other woman, but the actors playing Evan's producer and composer and the Gene Shalit-like Repka hop the border into caricature and spoil the play's twinkling, unbelievable believability.
But while Fizzard could punch up the writing a bit (Repka's reviews don't sound like anything that would grace The New York Times), the play is basically bulletproof. Or, at the very least, it's guaranteed to seem so to the segment of its potential audience that despairs over the power of the Times. For the real message of Good Opinions isn't the traditional fairy-tale standby that love conquers all, but that the Times's Godlike ability to decide shows' futures is a cancer infecting every theatre practitioner in New York.
The intimation starts off silly enough: Repka's opinions are no better than Adele's, despite the many years of experience and taste that supposedly separating the two, ha ha. But as Repka's role as an Angel of Death becomes more prominent, more threatening, and more important to Evan and his cohorts, we see they're not really fighting for their jobs. They're fighting for their lives.
The Frankenstein musical gets good reviews from Time and the Daily News, but everyone knows it's dead from the opening words of the Times notice. Evan and his collaborators never question it, but just accept that they're done for and don't tackle the problem; instead, they try to learn instead what Repka thinks and then cater to that. And, Fizzard suggests, who can blame them? How can art survive, let alone flourish, when a production's entire goal is to please the only critic whose word matters?
If it's a defeatist attitude, it's one with some factual basis - Fizzard knows, as everyone with even a tangential connection to the New York theatre does, that this is the way things work. Maybe not - hopefully not - to this degree, but it's a serious problem that won't be corrected until those suffering from it take it upon themselves to discover a solution. Evan gives the Times its power by capitulating to Repka's will and whims. But what happens if he makes another choice?
That, though, is the subject of another play - a sequel to this one? Perhaps, though it's difficult to say that it would find the same precarious balance between fun and scathing indictment that this one does. The play's attitude toward the press is so bitter, so acidic that it seems as if there's nothing left to say about it. That might cause problems for Fizzard - Good Opinions is good enough to bring her success, but will she get the chance? It's impossible to imagine it receiving a rave in The New York Times.