Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Pay the Writer

Theatre Review by James Wilson - August 21, 2023

Marcia Cross, Bryan Batt, and Ron Canada
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
"Pay the Writer" could be this summer's rallying cry for the striking members of the Writer's Guild of America, but it is also the name of Tawni O'Dell's new play about a celebrated writer's fraught relationship with his literary agent. Now running at Manhattan's Signature Center, Pay the Writer (which is not a Signature Theatre production), despite its grammatically imperative title, lacks political and dramatic urgency, but it boasts some fine performances that at least make the experience worth the price of admission.

Bruston Fischer (Bryan Batt) is a high-powered literary agent who has represented Black author Cyrus Holt (Ron Canada) for forty-five years. As Bruston, who revels in gay bitchiness, explains, "It's the longest relationship either one of us has ever had. Longer than all four of his marriages put together." Holt is a famous novelist, and he is best known for what he describes as "the Pulitzer-prize-winning, seminal novel about racism in the military during the Vietnam War." That book in particular has also made him quite wealthy because it was, as he half-sardonically remarks, adapted for a Spike Lee joint starring Michael B. Jordan and Nicki Minaj.

Aided by Bruston's fourth-wall exposition, the drama moves back and forth through several decades (with Miles G. Jackson and Garrett Turner playing Young Bruston and Young Cyrus), reflecting the vicissitudes of their personal and professional relationship. They are at the top of their careers, but now Holt is dying. Reluctantly, Holt tries to tie up loose ends with his ex-wife Lana (Marcia Cross), estranged daughter Gigi (Danielle J. Summons), and ne'er-do-well son Leo (Turner).

Folded into the mix is an arrogant and snooty French translator, Jean Luc (Steven Hauck), to whom Cyrus has given his final manuscript and has bypassed Bruston. Although the reason for the slight is revealed near the play's climax, it won't come as much of a surprise to most audience members.

Under Karen Carpenter's direction, the most effective scenes are those that include Bruston, Cyrus, and Lana. Batt is wonderfully and effectively catty, but there is notable warmth in his scenes with Canada even when the two men are sparring and cruelly belittling one another. Cross is a titanic and sexy force in six-inch heels, and it is a shame she doesn't have more to do. Some of the other characters (and to no fault of the actors playing them) seem extraneous, and the inclusion of a homeless man (Stephen Payne) near the end seems like little more than an unbelievable plot device.

In a flashback, Cyrus and Bruston agree that both Richard Wright and Leo Tolstoy would have benefitted from editors with "some balls." A similar recommendation could be lobbed at playwright O'Dell. I don't intend here to pan the writer, but I wish the play further mined the fine character study within. Regrettably, the complexities of the characters tend to get lost within the Lifetime-movie like dramaturgical clutter and mechanical plotting.

The production is often just as unsubtle. For instance, there are loud, mournful jazz riffs between each scene (there is no composer credited, but Bill Toles designed the sound), and David Gallo's scenic design includes an intricately detailed writing studio/ Greenwich Village apartment that is overstuffed with books. Just in case audiences might miss the literary references, there are several-inch think books with bindings proclaiming, to mention just one, August Wilson and Jitney. The titles can be read from the back of the auditorium.

Indeed, for a work about writing, publishing, and literary legacies, there is a certain amount of irony that after attending Pay the Writer, I was mostly thinking about the actors.

Pay the Writer
Through September 30, 2023
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: