By Perry Tannenbaum
More than a couple of Neil LaBute plays have waltzed through Charlotte in the past dozen years, including Fat Pig, Reasons to Be Pretty, The Mercy Seat, Autobahn, Some Girl(s), and the suite of Mormon one-acts, Bash, that introduced the BYU grad to the Queen City in 2003. They aren’t teeming with admirable heroes — or even evil folk we might acknowledge as rogues. In Fat Pig, Reasons to Be Pretty, and Some Girl(s), LaBute was chiefly adept at showing what boorish, sexist assholes men can be. Comedy rarely intruded in LaBute’s world. When it surfaced, in a brief two-hander that was part of the Autobahn suite, results were quite tepid.
No, LaBute was funniest when he shocked us with how unabashedly crass and unapologetically cruel his boors could be. I’ve never seen LaBute as bent on comedy as he is in The Money Shot, the newest of his plays to hit town in a smart Queen City Theatre Company production at Duke Energy Theater.
With three women and just one guy in the cast, the demo has altered somewhat in this latest LaBute effort, but what triggers the playwright’s newfound comic vein are his decisions to amp up their egos while tamping down their intelligence.
Although outnumbered here at co-star Karen’s plush home, Steve wields the most clout and drives the plot. He’s a former Sexiest Man Alive and a bona fide Hollywood action hero, but his career desperately needs a reboot. So he has reached out to a trendy European director, hoping to bring new artsiness to his image by way of a new film that Steve will be executive producing.
If you are already familiar with what a “money shot” is in the realm of porn flicks, then you already have a good idea why Steve and his glam gold-digging wife Missy are calling upon Karen and her butch partner Bev, an established film editor. Otherwise, you would need to wait until we’re fairly deep into this 108-minute production — or have read some pre-publicity or this review — before Steve and Karen broach the point of this get-together.
So, there will definitely be drama here, but not until we’ve crossed plenty of comical character-study terrain aimed at taking down Hollywood’s pretenses of sophistication and culture. The key specimens are the co-stars. Steve follows in the footsteps of LaButean louts, but with his wealthy arrogance — compounded by his ignorance of the location of Belgium, the lineage of David Crosby, and the western march of civilization — he brings a unique suavity to the loutish breed, its aura further magnified by his bimbo wife’s worship.
Karen’s vapidity seems to have a more specific target: the shameless self-promotion of Hollywood celebs through branded products, business enterprises and endorsements. She already has a restaurant, a fashion line and a website extending her marketability. After the upcoming film, Karen has visions of launching her own line of sex toys! So yes, if you haven’t already guessed, it’s a raw sex scene — not a simulated one, mind you — that will crown the upcoming Steve-Karen hook-up with artistic legitimacy.
Missy is already enthusiastically on board with her husband’s scheme, giddy over the prospect of soon reaching their first anniversary (with the assistance of their marriage counselor). But beware, Missy has artistic aspirations of her own, and you will be obliged to endure a portion of her capabilities, as she reprises an episode from her role in a high school production of The Crucible.
Bev is the only true obstacle in the way of Steve and Karen copulating onscreen, since she’s hard-working, intelligent and saddled with a modicum of modesty and decency. There probably wouldn’t be quite as much friction within this foursome if Steve weren’t so boorishly tactless and homophobic, except that Bev brings so much righteous political correctness to the table that she’s almost as irritating as he is. Furthermore, Bev’s petulance toward Karen is so toxic that, at one point, even the dimwitted Missy can see that her marriage counselor might be helpful.
How all this plays out is pretty wild and delicious, thanks to an energetic cast directed by Glenn T. Griffin, who keenly amplifies the effervescent comedy. You may not think that J.R. Adduci is old enough to be pretending he’s only 45, but once we’re rolling, that hardly seems to matter. He brings such charm to Steve that he personifies the Hollywood paradox: a pantheon of demigods we worship while fully grasping their shallowness. As Adduci sat there on the couch, desperately googling on his cell to back up his contention that Belgium is not in Europe, I found myself feeling sorry for the schmuck.
Michelle Fleshman captures even more of the pathos of Hollywood’s fading stars, brilliantly brittle as Karen, especially poignant as she affirms her bisexuality to her sneering guests. You’ll also like Karen’s assorted meltdowns when she fails at mediation and conciliation. In so many ways, Iesha Nyree’s steely portrayal of Bev brings uneasiness to the piece. She’s sufficiently abrasive to make us wish that Steve and Karen will have their way, and when the gloves come off, she convincingly emerges as the alpha predator.
Nobody comes off nearly as shallow as Karen Christensen in her exuberantly silly portrait of Missy. Many of Griffin’s directorial excesses are lavished on this bleached blonde, whether she’s shamelessly spooning with her new husband on the hosts’ couch or when she finally turns on him in the denouement.
The ills of Hollywood may be crass and clichéd. Yet they pepped up David Mamet’s work when he wrote Speed-the-Plow — and they’re ministering a similar therapy here for the misanthropic LaBute. This may be the sunniest piece he ever writes.
Playwright Diana Grisanti won first prize again for a staged reading of her new script at last winter’s NuVoices festival, so Actor’s Theatre is bringing The Patron Saint of Losing Sleep (nee Inc.) back to Stonewall Street for its fully-staged world premiere. I wasn’t among the judges who thought Inc. was the best script at NuVoices, but I thought it was distinctively better than Grisanti’s previous winner, River City, which premiered here last September.
Unfortunately, Grisanti’s rewrite has degraded her product — particularly her title heroine, Ada, who might be described as the patron saint of catastrophic interventions. Back at divinity school, Ada intervened on behalf of a college pal, who was fielding some sexual harassment from her advisor. Memories of this intervention, which merely resulted in Ada’s dismissal from school, are dredged up when she stages a more harmful intervention while working at a customer service phone bank.
Nicia Carla gives us a vivid account of Ada as she deals with the insomnia stemming from her misdeeds; and her supporting cast, meticulously directed by Elissa Goetschius, stir up a lively mix of comedy and drama. But Grisanti has botched her formula and lost moral focus, making Ada less savory while tilting the overall tone toward comedy. Just because Ada pierces (stigmatizes?) her hands with a fork, Grisanti and the college chum seem to be granting the meddlesome sinner forgiveness for causing the death of an unborn child.
Nope, I wasn’t cool with that.