Wisdom Bridge Theatre

My high school and grammar school drama coaches are best remembered for their screaming fits, one for throwing a chair across the stage during a particularly frustrating rehearsal, and another for getting drunk on opening night. One, however, was a professional. If Mr. Smith yelled, his voice resonated and shook the hearts of his cast of 13-year-olds. Yet he could whisper, and with his quiet superior logic tear us apart for our complacency and lack of talent. Julian (Denis O’Hare), the director portrayed in John Logan’s Showbiz, premiering at Wisdom Bridge Theatre, reminds me of Mr. Smith. Though inexcusable, his cruelty stems from a perfectionist’s passion for his art. As Julian warns his cast before their first read-through of the play within this play, “I am not your father. This will not be fun.” He considers the theater a holy place and himself leader of the crusade against mediocrity.

Though Julian will not “sacrifice sacred for popular,” Showbiz has the makings of an exceedingly popular play. It makes great fun of the acting world through stereotypes of its inhabitants. Sean (Todd Kimsey), the tight-jeaned hunk who acts “because it’s supposed to be fun,” makes the perfect contrast to Julian. A reference to The Picture of Dorian Gray sails over Sean’s head–the closest he comes to literary allusion is quoting his hero Captain Kirk. Mousy, reclusive Barbara (Holly Cardone) is on the brink of a nervous breakdown, something Julian sees as a plus for developing the suicidal character she plays. Her opposite is Alex (Molly Hagan), the confident, pretty actress who breezes into the theater greeting everyone with a kiss. Though involved with Sean, Alex comes closest to Julian’s ability and love of theater. William (Kenneth Northcott), the aging English actor, has the voice to play Shakespeare but traded in his technique for the cash of commercials. Julian calls Ray (Robert Goliath Taich) “the living playwright,” a bother because he’s alive to question Julian’s direction. Julian sees Ray and the actors as the stereotypes we initially see, as puppets he can control. But the characters gradually step out of their assigned roles, surprising Julian and us.

Julian wants his play to exude the evil that pervades even seemingly ordinary lives. Likewise, Showbiz gives us Ben (Guy Massey), Julian’s assistant and personal devil who squelches any satisfaction Julian might feel with the progress of the play and with a relationship developing with Alex. Ben continually warns Julian that to be content is to invite mediocrity–which in Julian’s estimation is “to die a warm, safe death.” Perhaps too often, Ben and Julian reiterate their cold credo: you have to be cruel to be great. But Showbiz remains an interesting play about life, not just theater–about choosing a modus operandi.

Terry McCabe directs an outstanding cast to deftly exchange Logan’s one-liners while building a plausible theatrical family united by mutual compassion. But as Logan said in a 1991 interview about his play Hauptmann, “The main concept of the production is to let Denis act.” O’Hare’s Julian begins as a broadly and darkly comic Dr. Strangelove. Julian has one false arm, which he effectively camouflages beneath an impeccably tailored suit until he maneuvers the telltale glove to rest stiffly on an actor’s shoulder–a discomforting tool of intimidation. Most impressive is O’Hare’s ability to hold back, letting Julian’s sarcasm bite but not his voice. Julian is continually finding fault with his cast; but only near the end does he lose control of himself–and then of his actors.

In this behind-the-scenes look at theater the action never leaves the stage. Though the characters come and go through the stage door, presumably to lead outside lives, we never hear them talk about a person or problem unrelated to their work. They return again and again to the kitchen table that makes up the set of the play they are rehearsing, an appropriately homey setting for a workplace that is the center of their lives.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Studio.