According to Goldman
Also see Warren's reviews of The Wild Party
Movies may currently hold greater interest than theater in American society, but Bruce Graham's highly entertaining and fascinating world premiere play According to Goldman, now at Philadelphia Theatre Company, is a work that should appeal to movie and theater fans alike. Constantly surprising and often hilarious, Graham's three-person play about screenwriting, Hollywood, and personal relationships does something that few works actually achieve nowadays, namely create rich and complex characters we passionately care about. At the same time, According to Goldman asks big questions as it probes the connection between the world of fantasy that drives film and the real life decisions that underlie those same movies. Should real life dictate the writing process or are films only meant to be escapist and commercial entities?
According to Goldman focuses on Gavin Miller (Bruce McCarty), a Hollywood screenwriter taking a break from "the biz" and currently teaching a college screenwriting class. Though confronted with a classroom of lackluster students, Gavin is intrigued by a last-minute addition to his course, the socially awkward and gawky Jeremiah (Tobias Segal), a Religious Studies major with a love for Fred Astaire musicals. Jeremiah, who grew up in Africa under the care of missionary parents, quickly demonstrates a talent for writing and, with Gavin's assistance, the two begin to collaborate on a screenplay based largely on Jeremiah's life. Melinda Miller (Carmen Roman), Gavin's talkative wife with a love for hosting dinner guests, is happy with her new suburban life, but is less than thrilled when she learns that Gavin wants to take a stab at Hollywood again. The choices that each character makes have major reverberations, and as revealed by the play's truthful and edgy conclusion, significant consequences as well.
Graham's writing truly sparkles, effortlessly interweaving simultaneous scenes that occur in various locations (Gavin's classroom, the Miller home, and Jeremiah's dorm room), staged on Michael Schweikardt's three-tiered set. This perhaps is one of the work's greatest delights, that in a play about movies and filmmaking, Graham's work is unwaveringly theatrical. Often the words of one character seamlessly blend into the speech of another character in what could be termed the theatrical equivalent of cross-cutting. Or take the moments in which Jeremiah tries to find solace in the world of black and white musicals and suddenly leaps around the stage in top hat and cane re-enacting an Astaire dance sequence. Segal's athleticism and dancing are utterly enchanting, and one can't help but grin at Jeremiah's abandon.
Smoothly directed with wit and humor by Pamela Berlin, there is not a weak actor in PTC's production. Most amazing is Tobias Segal as Jeremiah in a performance that can only be called revelatory. The young actor displays a wisdom of acting beyond his years, giving a highly nuanced performance that reveals an awkward, shy and loony, but also disturbed, young man. Every stammer and idiosyncratic twitch he makes is utterly convincing, and his turns as his dapper Astaire alter ego only add to the versatility of his performance. One can only hope that we'll see more from the talented Segal in the future.
Bruce McCarty's Gavin, with his gruff and scratchy voice, is both sympathetic and appropriately off-putting, embodying the tension of wanting fame and success while trying not to become part of the dog-eat-dog Hollywood scene. Carmen Roman as Melanie is the show's most endearing figure as she chats (in her monologues) with her next neighbor about her love of gardening. When push comes to shove at the play's end, though, Roman's Melanie turns fierce as well, holding her own when forced to deal with Gavin's voracious ego.
Like fellow Philadelphian Michael Hollinger's recent world premiere Tooth and Claw, Graham's play strives to tackle large topics while maintaining a sense of intimacy. According to Goldman (the title comes from screenwriter William Goldman's famous saying "Nobody Knows Anything") takes some of the most clichéd situations, such as marital problems and father/son relationships, and casts them in a light that is entirely fresh and captivating. Graham's play is evidence that some of the nation's best theater is coming out of Philadelphia and hopefully it won't be long until other companies stage their own production of According to Goldman .
According to Goldman runs through April 18. Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Philadelphia Theatre Company, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia, PA. Schedule and Tickets: 215-569-9700 or visit www.phillytheatreco.com.