Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The TomKat Project
Stray Cat Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of Pump Boys and Dinettes, Buyer & Cellar, Motown the Musical, Sweet Charity, The Wedding Singer , The History of the Devil, and Avenue Q

Brady Weber, Chris Mascarelli, Brandi Bigley, Chanel Bragg, and Tim Shawver
The public's fascination with celebrities is at the center of two plays currently running in Phoenix. Phoenix Theatre's Buyer & Cellar, which opened last week, focuses on the eccentricities and loneliness of Barbra Streisand. The Tomkat Project, which just opened at Stray Cat Theatre, follows the crazy courtship, marriage, and divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes and whether or not what we heard about their relationship is fact or fiction. While not everything about Tomkat is successful, it is a humorous play, with several laugh out loud moments, and Stray Cat has assembled a small and very talented cast who play the dozens of characters involved in the Cruise and Holmes story with chameleon like grace.

When comparing the combination of Cruise's well known Scientology views and A-list movie star status to Holmes' Catholic upbringing and lack of any real major success beyond her role on TV's "Dawson's Creek," they seemed from the beginning to be a mismatched couple. The media dubbed them "TomKat" and the tabloid obsession with their relationship seemed to be never ending. Playwright Brandon Ogborn has crafted an interesting comedy that follows the relationship from its strange beginning to its even stranger end, the media obsession, and the parade of crazy characters who were involved. He also includes the many bizarre situations and interviews that happened during that time and his play has a nice payoff in the second act.

As soon as The TomKat Project begins we are told that Ogborn wrote the play based on facts, rumors, theories, lies, "and, when appropriate, Wikipedia." So we immediately know that not everything we are about to see is factual. Ogborn is also a character in the play, serving as the narrator, and his play lays out the many mysteries surrounding the Cruise/Holmes relationship, the potential role that Scientology played in it, and the erratic behavior that Cruise exhibited during their time together. While the majority of the play is made up, there are many actual conversations reenacted when a sign is held up that reads: "This dialogue is verbatim." These parts include the many notorious interviews that happened throughout the TomKat craze. We relive Cruise's disastrous press interviews, including his TV interview with Matt Lauer where he debates Brooke Shields' use of drugs for post-partum depression and calls Lauer "glib." The infamous couch jumping interview with Oprah Winfrey, where he professes his love for Katie, is a comical highlight. Each of these reenactments are hilarious and cringe worthy, knowing that the idiocy we are seeing actually happened.

The play also focuses on the involvement of Scientology in the relationship, including the evidence that came out later that the Church leaders were auditioning actresses to be Cruise's next wife in order to, allegedly, keep one of their highest members happy so he'd continue to contribute to their efforts. It also discusses Katie's escape from what many believed was a controlling and suffocating relationship. And while the first act is humorous, Ogborn turns the tables in act two with the appearance of Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth who wrote a scathing article on Michael Jackson as well as one painting Holmes as the victim in her relationship with Cruise. Ogborn ponders the question: what if Katie Holmes is the villain in the story? Was she the one being used or the opportunist out to further her career? Was Cruise simply naïve and being manipulated by The Church of Scientology to further the Church's best interests? This twist, and the debates Ogborn has with Orth, and replays of scenes we've already witnessed but now with the victim roles reversed, elevate the play into a thought-provoking commentary and a cautionary tale about not believing everything we read and about just how far from the truth celebrity gossip might be. However, while there are many funny parts, Ogborn doesn't quite write as comical as he could, with some of the set-ups for the wackier moments not having as funny as a payoff as they should.

Director Louis Farber stages the proceedings with a fast pace and a cast of seven who are exceptional. Chris Mascarelli has a fairly good handle on Cruise's famous mannerisms and way of speaking, and while he doesn't actually look much like the famous actor, and is considerably taller than him, his portrayal of Cruise, especially in the second act, actually makes you feel sorry for him. Also, his delivery of Cruise's marriage proposal where he uses lines and catch phrases from various Cruise films is a gem. Brandi Bigley has Holmes' signature mannerisms down pat, from her constant need to touch and often move her hair to how she sometimes talks out of the side of her mouth in a somewhat quiet way. She brings an appropriate sense of naiveté to the part but in the second act also portrays Holmes as the manipulator with a gleam in her eye.

The rest of the cast vividly play dozens of characters, from Steven Spielberg to Scarlett Johansson, Oprah Winfrey, and Nicole Kidman as well as studio executives, lawyers, parents and friends of the couple. David Chorley is brilliant as the conniving, manipulative Scientology front man David Miscavige but also does nice work as several other less manipulative parts including a hilarious brief cameo as Tom Hanks. Tim Shawver is just as good as Katie's confused dad, who is determined to get her away from Cruise, business obsessed Viacom head Sumner Redstone, and the somewhat confused Spielberg. Kellie Dunlap morphs with a refined ease between Katie's mom and the relentless Orth, and even gets to play baby Suri Cruise. Chanel Bragg is a hoot as Oprah, brings a refined sense of elegance to Kidman, and has a blast as Cruise's male lawyer. The fact that none of the actors looks anything like these famous people only adds to the fun of the show. As Ogborn, Brady Weber is basically the straight man of the piece, yet he keeps the facts, dates, and play moving along at a brisk pace.

While Farber does a good job of staging the action effectively in the small space, there are a few times when Weber's narration is delivered so far upstage that it is sometimes lost due to the combination of Weber not waiting to speak until the audience has stopped laughing and his lack of projection. Hopefully this will be remedied with more performances to improve the timing.

The TomKat Project ponders many "what if?" questions in our wacky world of celebrity fascination. Ogborn's play may not answer the many questions that are raised into the TomKat relationship, and could be funnier than it is, but it is an interesting study and an exposé of how the media can both help and destroy a celebrity. The ending is comically sweet, with the audio from an actual conversation between Winfrey and Cruise played out over the speakers in the theatre, in which Winfrey states "This is unbelievable," and Cruise responds, "I know, I know." While Winfrey is speaking about the view from Cruise's Colorado home it could just as easily apply to the entire TomKat history and Ogborn's in-depth, well-researched analysis of it and Stray Cat's crackerjack cast.

The TomKat Project at the Stray Cat Theatre runs through May 9th, 2015, with performances at the Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 E. 6th Street in Tempe. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480 227-1766 or at

Director: Louis Farber
Production Stage Manager: Amanda Keegan
Assistant Stage Manager: Mychal Anaya
Scenic Design: Eric Beeck
Technical Director: Michael Peck
Costume Design: Danny Chihuahua
Property Design: Marcus D. Voss
Lighting Design: Ellen Bone
Sound Design: Pete Bish

Cast: (in order of appearance)
Brady Weber as Brandon Ogborn
Brandi Bigley as Katie Holmes
Chris Mascarelli as Tom Cruise
Tim Shawver as Martin Joseph Holmes, Sumner Redstone, Steven Spielberg and others
David Chorley as David Miscavige, Brad Gray, Tom Hanks and others
Chanel Bragg as Oprah Winfrey, Nicole Kidman, Bert Fields and others
Kellie Dunlap as Kathleen Holmes, Sharon Waxman, Suri Cruise, others

Photo: John Groseclose / Stray Cat Theatre

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix