Danny Bouncing

Victory Gardens Theater

By Adam Langer

Here’s a list of the elements I most enjoyed in Victory Gardens’ world premiere of Danny Bouncing, Rick Cleveland’s diverting new comedy about a young Hollywood screenwriter.

(1) Martin McClendon as Danny, feebly attempting to win back his girlfriend by standing outside her apartment and serenading her with a karaoke version of the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” while his friend Hector–a Camel billboard model turned criminal–looks on.

(2) Sarah Underwood as a crackpot New Age therapist wryly administering a series of bogus treatments to soothe Danny’s angst and admonishing his ego for “beating the shit” out of his holy spirit.

(3) David deCastro as Danny’s gay best friend, Doug, lounging in a Jacuzzi and authoritatively outing celebrities, including Tom Cruise and Charlton Heston.

(4) Patrick Populorum as an actor friend of Danny’s so self-involved that he can reminisce about an acting class with no self-consciousness while buck naked (much to the open-mouthed shock of some Victory Gardens audience members, though one woman said to her husband during one of the numerous Jacuzzi scenes, “I like to see a little variety sometimes. I like to see some circumcised and some uncircumcised”).

(5) A movie scene, blaring from a TV set, that parodies aw-shucks, feel-good Hollywood flicks like Field of Dreams and A River Runs Through It. The film is entitled “Fields and Streams.”

(6) Another Hollywood-movie parody in which an actress prepares to audition for the part of a hooker in a new Bruce Willis-Walter Matthau vehicle about a bomb expert and the ghost of Frank Lloyd Wright.

(7) Cleveland’s familiar though welcome satirical asides about writers’ inspirational literature on the order of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

What’s noteworthy about this list is how little it has to do with the plot. Danny Bouncing has a passable framework in Danny’s journey to self-knowledge, his girlfriend troubles, and his attempt to sell a script detailing his bout with cancer (“My Left Testicle”). The trouble is that the further one gets from this framework, the more entertaining the play becomes.

Writers who draw on their own lives run the risk of hearing the unpleasant, almost incomprehensible news that their hard-fought battles are familiar or hackneyed. Cleveland, for example, is a thirtysomething screenwriter who scored big at last year’s Sundance festival with his script for Jerry and Tom, broke up with his girlfriend, dated a skydiving actress and jumped out of a plane to impress her, wrote a play about a thirtysomething screenwriter who breaks up with his girlfriend…and so forth.

At the end of this play, Danny cheekily suggests to the audience that his life might not be bad material for a screenplay. But he’s wrong: what Cleveland has done is written an anti-screenplay. Where most screenwriting instructors–at least the ones who make big bucks and churn out cookie-cutter students ready to write Die Hard 4–advise the writer to remove every prop, every scene, and every line of dialogue that’s not essential to the plot, Cleveland takes the opposite approach. The best moments of this play are the inessential ones–what would seem most cuttable is actually most crucial. Danny’s attempts to find a new flame and face his fears of skydiving are amiable and true enough, but they lack the wit and the invention Cleveland lavishes on far less consequential details.

Danny’s plight is completely plausible, but it’s often dwarfed by what’s going on around him: he’s forced to play straight man to his own ridiculous life. McClendon is a talented performer with a gift for witty underplaying, but when Danny consults the New Age therapist, Underwood steals every scene from him. Cleveland’s shots at New Age gurus might be too easy, but Underwood’s excellent comic performance makes one wonder what he might have come up with if the play had been about her. Ditto for Populorum as the solipsistic actor whose career has been one long downward plunge ever since he appeared in a William Friedkin movie about killer trees. Mary Griswold’s clever minimalistic set and Curt Columbus’s razor-sharp production both have more vitality than Danny’s story.

Sometimes Cleveland overdoes the cartoon universe surrounding his protagonist: a subplot involving armed robberies and doing time plays like neutered Tarantino. But his desire to rev up the main story with this sort of material is perfectly understandable–and welcome. Some of the play’s least engaging moments are Danny’s encounters with characters on similarly steady wavelengths, like the ultimately vacuous skydiving thespian, Natalie. If Queen Gertrude were watching this play instead of listening to Polonius, she might well mutter, “More art, less matter.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Liz Lauren.