Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Tim's review of American Buffalo
Set in early 1940s Hollywood, Something Intangible tells the story of the Wiston brothersTony, a brilliant and charismatic animator, and Dale, an accountant who prefers to stay in his brother's shadow. Tony has created the world's most famous cartoon character, "Petey Pup," but now he wants to prove he's a great artist by making a feature-length film inspired by classical music. Sound familiar? The parallels to Walt and Roy Disney are overt, and sometimes they're overdone. (At one point I wondered if the play would mention that, as with Disney, the signature used as the studio logo was not the boss' real signatureand sure enough, Graham slips that detail in.) There are echoes of the clashes between the Fleischer brothers too, not to mention Charlie Chaplin's relentless perfectionism; like Chaplin, Tony delays the release of his dream project in order to make his film as perfect as possible, even as his money runs out.
But the real point isn't to spot the inside referencesit's to chart the relationship between the self-conscious Dale and the unrestrained Tony. Dale does all he can to please Tony, but Tony dismisses Dale's creative ideas ("Cats aren't funny"). Dale dotes on his wife and his retarded son, while Tony's life is filled with hookers and pills. Dale knows that there are more important things in life than making movies, but for Tony, moviemaking really is his life. As the making of the classical picture is beset by crisis after crisis, and Tony's drug use accelerates, the tension within Dale builds to the boiling point. The question is whether Dale will get Tony to change his waysand whether he really wants Tony to change.
Graham has a great gift for dialogue that reveals a lot about his characters. And that dialogue is, as usual for Graham, very funny. (You get a real picture of Tony's inflated self-image when he explains how he manages to avoid seeming nervous upon meeting Greta Garbo. "You," he tells a starstruck Dale, "think about how lucky you are to meet her. I, on the other hand, think about how lucky she is to meet me.") Yet as good as Something Intangible is, there are a few minor but nagging flaws. One is in making Dale a bit too saintly, almost to the point of naiveté. Another is the play's structure; the dramatic scenes overlap with scenes of Dale confessing his misgivings about Tony to a psychiatrist (played by Sally Mercer), which seems a bit too familiar a plot device. And giving the doctor a movie-related backstory (she's David O. Selznick's psychiatrist too, and ends up as a technical advisor on his movie Spellbound) just seems too convenient a way to flesh out a character who has little to do. Finally, as the evening rushes to its conclusion, it focuses more on the mechanics of the plot (will the movie be completed?) than on the emotional connection between the characters.
However, these failings are minor, and some theatergoers may be too busy laughing to notice them. Under Terrence J. Nolen's snappy direction, it's a kick to see two very different, beautifully nuanced lead performances by Scott Greer and Ian Merrill Peakes. Greer's Dale is the audience's surrogate, full of pride and outrage, struggling to make sense of every indignity Tony throws at him. Peakes' Tony, meanwhile, is always on the move, leaping onto his desk, wielding a tennis racquet like a sword; he's smiling one moment, snarling the next, then crawling into a fetal position on the floor. Even in Tony's most vicious moments, Peakes is a joy to watch.
Doug Hara is touching as the whipping boy in Tony's office. And Walter Charles is clearly relishing playing two very different rolesa worried member of the studio's board of directors and an arrogant European conductor. Special notice should be made of Rosemarie E. McKelvey's costumes (she gets the grass stains on Tony's polo uniform just right) and James Kronzer's gorgeous, sleek set design for Tony's office.
As a filmmaker, Tony Wiston wants to prove that he's something more than just a crowd-pleaser. He needn't have bothered. As Bruce Graham shows in his very entertaining new play, there's nothing wrong with being a real crowd-pleaser.
Something Intangible runs through June 7, 2009 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or in person at the box office.