Monday, February 16, 2009

The Playwright's Nightmare, part 2: "Rich and Famous"


The blurb that A.C.T. put out for their production of John Guare's Rich and Famous contained several phrases that are always right up my alley. Phrases like "dark comedy," "nightmarish phantasmagoria," "twisted humor, rapid-fire dialogue, and outrageous songs." Well, I guess I got my hopes up too high, for what turned out to be a weird hybrid of absurdist comedy and shticky vaudeville, with a rather obvious moral: "If wealth and fame are your reasons for becoming an artist, maybe you shouldn't be one." Though the play deals with a poor schnook whose life is falling apart, it lacked the edge and the menace that I associate with the term "dark comedy," and the shifts in tone made it hard to know what's really at stake.

Said schnook, Bing Ringling, is "the world's oldest promising playwright," about to have his first Off-Off-Broadway production. In the course of the evening, he experiences the Playwright's Nightmare in its purest form: his actors are terrible, the critics savage his play, his girlfriend breaks up with him, he learns that his producer produced his play for basically the same reason that Max Bialystock produced Springtime for Hitler, etc. etc.

Some of John Guare's dialogue is funny, with appealing observations about the playwright's life and the type of people who take up this profession. (When Bing says that he wishes life were like "a Truffaut movie with songs," I thought Yes! Of course!) But I realize that my warm feelings are attributable more to my own sentimentality about being a playwright, than to the quality of the script. It's no different than a doctor enjoying a lousy TV medical drama because it happened to get something right about working in a hospital. That doesn't mean it's good.

Mostly, Rich and Famous seems confused about what tone to adopt: broad-but-still-plausible humor, or all-out exaggerated absurdism? Example of the former: The star of Bing's play is a terrible actor who moonlights as a transsexual hooker. Examples of the latter: Bing has written over 800 unproduced plays, and his parents are so over-doting that they have saved and bronzed all of his old diapers. When the play becomes untethered from the real world like this, it becomes hard to care about the characters, or even to know what to think of them.

Bing Ringling himself is a muddled figure. He is collaborating with famous composer Anatol Torah (a wicked lampoon of Leonard Bernstein) on a musical comedy--but the joke is that all of Anatol's songs sound exactly the same. So when Bing fawns over Anatol's music, does that mean that he realizes Anatol is a hack but is trying to flatter him anyway; or are we meant to think that Bing actually believes Anatol's hype? Neither option is very flattering to our hero--it means that Bing is either a hypocrite or an idiot--but worse than that, the play doesn't discernibly choose one option over the other. Also, say what you will about Bernstein, but I've never heard anyone accuse him of writing the same song over and over. This joke falls flat.

Even more confused is the question of whether Bing is any good as a playwright. Like Guare, he is fascinated with the ancient Etruscans, and he is proud of a showpiece speech in his play that goes "If I could have been born anybody--my pick of a Kennedy or a Frank Sinatra or a Henry Ford or the King of Greece--out of that whole hat of births, I still would've picked to be an Etruscan." But what we see of Bing's play, The Etruscan Conundrum, makes it look like a mess that combines this ancient civilization with Dante's Inferno with awful costumes that look like rejects from Xanadu, all enacted by two talentless performers--so why should we care whether this guy succeeds or fails?

(The Etruscan passages are new to this production of Rich and Famous. According to Guare, the original 1974 production never showed us what Bing's play was, but when he revised the script for ACT, he decided to incorporate parts of his own first play, Muzeeka. I suspect that owing to the fact that nobody performs Muzeeka anymore, Guare wanted to preserve the speech about the Etruscans in another play that had a better chance of success--but unfortunately, as I said, it just muddies things up.)

I did like the last scene of Rich and Famous, which took place far above Times Square and featured a nifty set design, as well as making a good satirical point about the toll fame can take on people who have reached the pinnacle of success. Other than that, though, the play is very uneven. The lead essay in the ACT playbill tries to make a case for the work as a profound exploration of "our own self-created myths of progress and vision," which I think is unbearably pretentious for something that is basically an absurdist vaudeville, but I will be saving my playbill anyway because of John Guare's essay and interview, which are quite chatty and informative.

Top: Brooks Ashmanskas as Bing; Stephen DeRosa as Anatol Torah.
Bottom: Gregory Wallace as Aphro (in "Etruscan" garb); Brooks Ashmanskas as Bing.

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