The Midtown International Theatre Festival
Imagine a softer, more sitcom-y Speed-the-Plow and you’ll have a basic idea Scott Brooks’s new play at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, ScreenPlay. In its floor-to-ceiling vivisection of Hollywood’s “infected whore” aesthetic (as a couple of characters refer to the movie business), it resembles David Mamet’s play in most ways—except for, well, the subtlety and the crackling dialogue. But as a summer-beach-read version of the same kind of backstage-buddy-flick story, this show (directed by Jenny Greeman) manages to be an engaging and surprisingly entertaining diversion.
Surprising primarily because this is the first of Brooks’s works I’ve seen that hasn’t gone over the top as a general rule. In his creaky 2006 farce Bag Fulla Money and his rickety high-rise real estate comedy DupleX (seen at MITF in 2007), Brooks demonstrated a willingness to push his ideas so far and so hard that they had no chance to push back. Not so here: Brooks trusts enough in his story of a 20-plus-year rivalry between two college friends, Dean and Graham (Jonathan Sale and Brooks himself), to keep the action and plot feeling real even when the underlying situation is far-fetched.
Would any writer, however hurting for money and recognition, sell his can’t-miss screenplay for $250,000 — forgoing any and all credit, giving up the laptop he used to write it, and doing it at all without an agent’s or lawyer’s advice? Yet that’s what Dean does, when Graham — who made a considerable fortune selling software — returns to L.A. 15 years after both graduated college. Graham wants to break into the movie-producing business and knows Dean’s script (titled The Conductor, apparently about a Nazi orchestra leader) is the way to get there; Dean just wants out of the hole of a life he’s dug for himself.
They both get what they want, at first, but the movie carries them along in directions neither expects nor knows how to deal with, to the chagrin of the college girlfriend they both shared at different points, Suzie (Heather Dilly), and Dean’s wise new fiancée Lisa (Diana DeLaCruz), who both get lost in the wake of the men’s “success.” In Hollywood, it seems, if you’re not part of the picture, you’re out of it immediately.
If certain aspects of Brooks’s narrative do strain credulity, he’s traced characters complete enough to smooth over the plot holes. Dean and Graham’s parasitic rivalry is deeply developed enough to power two decades of alternating brotherhood and acrimony, and the history they share of wanting to make it despite adversity, is compelling as laid out here. Brooks doesn’t quite paint Dean as desperate enough to deliver an instant “yes” to Graham’s soul-stealing bargain, but practically everything else, from how the men’s relationships with each other and their women change to how they let their own guilt eat them up when no one else will, is highly valid.
And more than a little funny. There’s something about the noncommittal way Suzie munches on scones during a business dealing that speaks directly to the “que sera sera” mindset that threatens to drive both men mad. Dean and Lisa’s small talk over chili represents some silly foreshadowing of troubles to come. And somehow, both The Conductor itself (which sounds unbearably, deliciously pretentious, a disjointed combination of Remains of the Day, Schindler’s List, and The Pianist) and the sputtering outrage it inspires in both men are absurd enough to delight without also inducing eye-rolling.
The same, alas, cannot quite be said of the acting. Sale finds the right balance of deadpan and desperation in his portrayal, making Dean both believable as a victim and a man who brought it on himself; but the other performers all give distractingly broad line readings that threaten to snap the tiny threads of truthfulness Brooks has woven. Dilly, in particular, seems unsure how far she can go and still be in the proper universe — she has a few nice moments, but frequently seems to be orbiting Mars. Brooks and DeLaCruz also overshoot, if by smaller distances.
One can understand their confusion. When the subject is grand larceny, simultaneously of the financial, artistic, and psychological varieties, how can “small” ever really do the trick? But big acting can bring with it a loss of nuance, especially in a tiny venue, and that’s what happens here. In theatre, as in writing, it’s the fine details that matter. Brooks has filled ScreenPlay at least half full of them, intricately carved and awaiting our discovery. And when we do come across them, we deserve to see them as clearly as possible. Even David Mamet, master of artful obfuscation, would likely agree.