Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
The Oldest Man in Show Business
Also see Sharon's review of The Perverse Tongue
It almost takes longer to explain The Oldest Man in Show Business than it does to see it. The show's actual running time is less than forty-five minutes. Yet, during that time, its two actors play five characters in three different time periods, ruminate on the difficulties of making it in the movie business and growing old, and engage in one of the best-staged sword fights I've ever seen on a stage.
The play is the brainchild of Steve Rudnick, a successful screenwriter who had a hand in, among other things The Santa Clause and its sequel. Rudnick laments the fact that, although he is getting older, the studio executives with whom he works are all still in their early twenties. The Oldest Man in Show Business is, on its surface, Rudnick's complaint about working in an industry where youth is king, and a fantasy in which he casts himself as a studio executive back in the days when studios were run by men like him - cigar-smoking Jews in their fifties.
Once Rudnick has explained his premise in a monologue spoken directly to the audience, he renames himself "Shmule Mordechai" and imagines himself to be one of the Yiddish-accented studio chiefs of yesteryear that he so admires. His partner in this dream sequence is Brian Dietzen, playing a nervous young writer named Nelson who Shmule enjoys abusing.
The play then compares and contrasts with a modern scene, in which Rudnick plays himself, and Dietzen plays Jason, a stereotypical young mid-level executive who pushes Rudnick around. Jason lounges on designer furniture, drinks designer water, and is phenomenally clueless about anything that happened more than ten years ago.
Rudnick keeps making funny asides to the audience, which are meant to point out how much better a studio head Shmule is than Jason. This doesn't entirely work for two reasons. First, the play actually points out more similarities between Shmule and Jason than differences. Both refuse to allow their writers to write anything of depth, preferring instead action movies that would pander to their respective audiences (Shmule produces swashbucklers, while Jason favors Vin Diesel pictures). And, if Shmule's repeated criticisms of Nelson based on Nelson's religion are supposed to be any less objectionable than Jason's criticisms of Rudnick based on his age, it certainly doesn't play that way. Second, and more fundamentally, it is difficult to take Rudnick's complaints of how terribly he is treated by the movie industry completely seriously given the fact that, in actuality, he currently has a major motion picture playing in wide release. The more Rudnick complains, the more it starts to dawn that Rudnick isn't being entirely truthful with us.
And here we meet the other two characters in this play. Because the character of fifty-year-old screenwriter Steve Rudnick - who is being played by fifty-year-old screenwriter Steve Rudnick - is not necessarily Rudnick himself, but simply a character who shares his name. Similarly, when young actor Brian Dietzen is not playing Nelson or Jason, he is playing a young actor named Brian, who is just another character in this play.
And then, right when the Shmule plot has pretty much run its course, the play diverts into a perfectly introduced, beautifully staged and convincingly executed sword fight. Dietzen and Rudnick seem to genuinely mean their sword fight. Unlike most staged battles, the reactions don't appear to be anticipated, but rather come as natural responses to the blows. This is one heck of a staged fight, and it is all the more impressive to be happening in a black box theatre just a few feet from the audience. To the extent all this Shmule business was really just a setup for the sword fight, all its failings can be excused.
This is not to say the first part of the play is a total loss. Rudnick's playwriting is pretty darn funny. He has a great sense of comedy and knows how to follow up a seemingly profound line with a real zinger of a punchline. Dietzen more than holds up his end of the script, balancing Jason's ignorance with a big dose of ego, and ultimately giving a convincing portrayal of a character that was never intended to be more than a caricature. But long after Shmule, Nelson and Jason have disappeared from our memories, Rudnick and Dietzen's exceptional sword fight lives on.
The Oldest Man in Show Business runs at the Hudson Backstage Theatre in Hollywood, Fridays and Saturdays through December 21. For reservations and information, call (323) 856-4200.
Metro Goldwynn Mordechai presents The Oldest Man in Show Business. Written by Steve Rudnick. Director John Riggi; Assistant Director Gus Buktenica; Producer Lisa Ullmann; Fight Directors Pason Burt/Charles Currier; Lighting Designer John Narun; Costume Designer True Cross; Stage Manager/Light Board Operator Joe Rubalcaba; Graphic Design/Poster Design Jason Eldredge/Brian Dietzen.
Photo by Rachel Devine