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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Amusing Lesson on Screenwriting According to Goldman

Also see Bob's review of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

According to Goldman, a play by Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham, introduces us to former Hollywood screenwriter Gavin Miller, who has left behind the vicissitudes of the movie industry and, along with his wife, relocated to a Northeastern university town where he teaches screenwriting to university undergraduates.

At the play's considerable best, Gavin is the mouthpiece for Graham's wisdom and cynicism anent the Hollywood studios and professional screenwriting. "Fantasy, that is what movies are all about," according to Gavin. He informs his new students that no one is interested in your life as a movie, and that the ingredients for a sellable screenplay are "explosions, brief nudity, and a part for Brad Pitt." He adds that he can either teach them how to write a good script, or how to write one that gets made into a movie. This is just the tip of the iceberg of fascinating, deftly written lessons and observations providing us the pleasurable experience of sitting in on a master class on screenwriting.

Graham's master class is the solid foundation on which he builds his narrative. An unlikely addition to his current class is Jeremiah Collins, a senior majoring in religious studies. Gavin and Jeremiah share a deep affection for the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers R.K.O. musicals. Jeremiah's initial screenplay proposal is a ludicrous, hopelessly dated re-working of them. This leads Jeremiah to reveal that he was raised in the Kalahari Desert by Christian missionary parents, and relieved the oppression of being totally surrounded by monochromatic brown sand by watching Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies ("there's color in the black and white if you really look"). Jeremiah starts to craft a screenplay about the adventure and danger of his experiences while in the Kalahari and his subsequent problems living in and attending school in an urban "ghetto" after his family shifted their missionary activity back to the States. Guiding Jeremiah in his efforts, Gavin senses an opportunity to return to Hollywood through Jeremiah's story, and offers to collaborate with his student on it.

The plotting of According to Goldman has all the subtlety of a Mack truck. It is arbitrary and clich├ęd, but it is also melodramatically lively and engaging. Furthermore, it is structured in accordance with Gavin's cogently expressed formula for screenplays. Notably, the latter provide truly entertaining bridges to the narrative scenes in the form of the aforementioned master classes. To some extent, criticism is disarmed when Gavin tells us that his play is an artificial construct designed to fulfill the requirements of writing a three act scenario. Although Goldman has been written to be performed in two acts, Gavin tells us when the third act ("Resolution") begins.

Although there are some nice touches (such as the use of a video loop of Astaire-Rogers dance numbers played throughout the intermission), director David Christopher has given us a mild, slack production. Kevin Gilmartin is a likeable, mild mannered Gavin. However, his Gavin reveals little of the underlying personality traits which play an important role in the play's progression. Jason Gillis' Jeremiah matches Gilmartin in style, but fails to give us any sense of the interior life or thought processes that motivate his behaviors and evolving persona (author Graham seems to give him scant help in this instance). Angela Della Ventura performs the role of Melanie as a mild, pleasantly smiling cipher throughout the proceedings. As written, Melanie is a woman of intelligence, a retired accountant who is willing to be acquiescent only to a point. Della Ventura does not convey any of this in her performance.

While it may have been a performance flaw that buried the joke, it appears that neither actress nor director were aware that Graham is indulging in a humorous jibe at Melanie when he has her say, "My family only said prayers during High Holidays like Passover." And while I'm at it, Jeremiah's supposedly anti-Semitic response to learning that Melanie is Jewish is pointless as it here seems to immediately vanish without effect or trace. Gavin's proposals for an animated Diary of Anne Frank—featuring a running gag with a Jewish cat and a Nazi mouse—are so unbelievably ludicrous that their intended satirical humor falls flat. Likely, as a co-author of the screenplay for Fox's animated Anastasia, Graham may know some horror stories of which I cannot conceive.

The Goldman referred to in the title is William Goldman, one of the best American screenwriters, whose films spanned more than 35 years from 1965 into the new century and included such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All The President's Men. He wrote three memoirs about his career. Gavin, quoting from these memoirs, informs us that According to Goldman, when it comes to knowing what is needed for a successful Hollywood screenplay, "Nobody knows anything".

Author Bruce Graham has written about a dozen produced plays, and co-authored a few screenplays. He is a gifted writer who is adept at constructing a play and creating lucid, amusing dialogue. Despite some missteps, Goldman makes for a readily accessible, entertaining evening of theatre. By titling his play According to Goldman, Graham spotlights the play's greatest strengths, which are its wry lessons and pithy comments on the art of commercial film writing.

According to Goldman continues performances (Fri. & Sat. 8 PM) through March 26, 2011 at Alliance Repertory Theatre at the Studio Theatre of the Union County Performing Arts Center, 1601 Irving Street, Rahway, New Jersey 07065.

According to Goldman by Bruce Graham; directed by David Christopher

Gavin Miller..............Kevin Gilmartin
Melanie...........Angela Della Ventura
Jeremiah.......................Jason Gillis

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- Bob Rendell

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