Rewind and Zap

Here's what I picture: Playwright Bruce Graham, sometime near the end of 2003, equipping his writing desk with an espresso machine. He is tired, and he is sick of this goddamned play he's writing. Not that it's bad — no! It's good! It's gonna be great! — but he can't figure out what to do with it. He knows According to Goldman will have to end somehow, but he's laid no groundwork for any kind of explosive climax, or even an interesting one.

His play is the story of over-the-hill screenwriter Gavin Miller, whose wife, Melanie, has somehow convinced him to abandon Hollywood and take a gig as a professor somewhere on the East Coast. Once there, he teaches screenwriting to a class of dullards redeemed by the presence of one Jeremiah Collins, a boy emotionally and spiritually crippled by his life as the son of Mormon missionaries in the Kalahari Desert. Despite or because of his weird upbringing, the kid's a movie buff nonpareil (Gavin: "He speaks movie!"), and his passion for the form, if not his talent, sparks something in the grizzled Hollywood vet. The two get closer and closer, until...

Well, until what? Will the boy break out of his Mormon spell, find his muse, and find fame, fortune, and happiness in the movie biz? Will Gavin get his groove back? No, no — these things will not satisfy. There must be something more! Something bigger! And so there's Bruce Graham, bleary-eyed and naked, hair coming out in patches, slurping unsafe quantities of espresso from one of those hat-mounted cups, flapping his arms impotently at his computer, and keening like a hungry dog for unproductive days on end. His friends worry. "Where's Bruce?" "Shit, man, I dunno. I haven't seen Bruce in weeks." They knock at his door and are frightened off by inhuman howls. But then — yes! Inspiration! Praise Jeebus!

Graham goes back through the script, retroactively adding all these freaky little hints that Collins, his young Mormon, might be irretrievably deranged. Violently so! Why the hell not? He reasons that his failure to find some sensible resolution for this monstrous piece has not been a failure of creativity but of balls. But he's over that now! Oh yes! No need to plan or ponder — let's just go crazy, explode out of our skulls! Do great artists ever sit down and plan out their plot points? Fuck, no! Let's go with it, let's jazz, let's hammer on the keyboard like Beethoven, like Little Richard! And whatever we've got at the end, well, that'll be, that'll be, that'll be... Art!

I've probably got the details all wrong, but in broad strokes, I think this is about how it went. According to Goldman begins with a surplus of ideas, all of which are rendered with enormous grace and class. Graham definitely had some mojo on his side when he first put pen to paper. Goldman begins as a play about the intersection of art and commerce, with Miller riffing on the difference between "good scripts" and "scripts that get made into movies." Beginning there, the play quickly sucks up a lot of other themes, all of which seem to emerge naturally, without Graham or anybody applying the least bit of undue force. For a while, this is a play about mentorship and tough love and how to temper ideals with bad old worldly reality. Then it develops bizarre Faustian overtones when Hollywood wants Miller to write a cartoon version The Diary of Anne Frank, complete with a Jewish talking cat, a talking Gestapo mouse, and a love triangle among Anne, Peter, and a well-meaning Hitler youth. Then it's a play about spousal neglect, and then it's a play about the way success (especially young success) can eat away at a person's moral code (even a Mormon's). Then it's a play about acceptance. Through all of this, it never once stops being a sprawling, busy-bodied, and heartfelt love letter to the movies, with smart references and eloquent paeans crowding together and imbuing the story with what life it has.

Which is quite a bit, until it goes off the rails. When is that, exactly? Is it when we start thinking about a CGI Anne Frank and Peter van Pels in a hellish ménage à trois with some riding-crop-wielding Aryan teen? Is it when Jeremiah Collins begins superimposing murderous fantasies over Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek"?

Hard to know, but you can see the actors respond to it all the same. Not Andrew Rasmussen so much — he's the fresh-faced little powerhouse who plays Jeremiah, and he never seemed entirely human to begin with, with his hypernasal voice and body curled up into itself, seemingly ready to disappear inside his missionary suit-and-tie. But Laura Turnbull, who plays the long-suffering Melanie Miller, seems to feel the script breaking apart around her, and audiences can actually watch her try to rein it back in. Goldman's most tragic character, she's spent 29 years married to a man who's spent those same 29 years married to his career and to the warp-speed Darwinian rat race of the Hollywood trenches. Just as everything else is getting a little too absurd to believe, she bites down, turning what had been a slight, inoffensive character into the sole standard-bearer of ordinary human feeling in the play's final 15 minutes.

Thank God, because Stephen Schnetzer, who plays Gavin Miller, simply cannot cope. It's a shame, because he was brilliant for the play's first hour. He was the teacher everybody wishes he'd had: smart, sarcastic, funny, unapologetically passionate about his subject, and unapologetically intent on sharing that passion with you. Sitting in on his classes is a pleasure, even though watching his disgraceful treatment of his wife at home makes you wonder whether all single-minded talents are callous failures behind closed doors. And his interaction with Jeremiah is by turns tender, condescending, and exasperated — and sometimes all of these things at once. In the last 15 minutes, when the playwright's crazy gonzo storytelling has made all suspension of disbelief impossible, Schnetzer could have saved the production by going with it, his hugely charismatic Hollywood façade exploding with anger and incredulity. It doesn't happen. All of a sudden, at the play's most dramatic and potentially trenchant (if unpardonably silly) moment, he goes limp. His marriage is in danger; he blanks. His career is over; he blanks. Either Miller suffered an understandable lapse of faith in Bruce Graham's ability or director Louis Tyrell made the mistake of taking the play's final act as seriously as it took itself. Either way, this is fatal, fatal stuff, and somebody needs to fix it.

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Brandon K. Thorp