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CurtainUp LA Review
by Laura Hitchcock
House, by any other professional or political name, would reflect the same universal conflicts of profit vs. morality and idealism that shake the publishing house of the title. Founder Joshua Maynard (William Schallert) has held on too long, let things go too far. Now he's forced to name a successor, as the house slips through his dying hands, and his choices have narrowed to rumpled ex-professor Griff (Christopher Curry) and suave born-to-sell Ted (Harry Hamlin).
Thomas McCormack, who wrote this interesting new play, knows the territory well. In a previous incarnation, he helmed New York's St. Martin's Press for many years. His cast of editors range from the aging Grover (Neil Vipond),who still doles out money and respect to his equally aging authors; chic Kay (Christine Estabrook), whose taste runs to movie star authors and a highly lucrative rabid right series; realistic Cora (Maree Cheatham) who has come to terms with her standards. The staff takes predictable sides in the power struggle that follows Josh's death and many facets of the book business are revealed, particularly in the Book Meetings at which they tout their wares.
When Josh's heir Sara (Stacey Martino) appoints Griff president, Ted goes along to get along but the sabotage starts immediately. He has his preppy assistant Sheila (Abigail Revasch) keep her ears open, even while he keeps her squirming in her place when she gets ambitious. He dictates her apology but the wonderfully quirky way Sheila delivers it leaves you no doubt she'll be Top Girl someday. Its one of the play's most delicious scenes.
Griff's high humanitarian standards ultimately bring the house to the brink of disaster and the bankers, stodgy Bart (J. Kenneth Campbell who doubles as the smarmy macho movie star you love to hate) and his book-loving assistant Hope (David Starzyk). Ted tells Sara if she will accept a 40% takeover offer from the rabid right publisher, which includes an additional 20% to him to stay as president, he will throw his 20% her way to support her wishes. By now Ted has played so many dirty tricks you don't believe him, even if he believes himself.
After drawing this broad black-and-white dichotomy, McCormack finds a denouement that we hope isn't far from the truth. Benjamin Moredcai, producer of King Hedley II and Angels in America, among others, has arranged top-drawer production values. Yael Pardess's many-leveled set makes dramatic use of the Falcon's tiny space, abetted by Rand Ryan's lighting design, projected photographs of the Concrete Jungle by Jenny Okun and Mimi Maxmen's elegant New York costumes. Steve Zuckerman's seamless direction makes for a smooth production.
The excellent cast does very well with characters that tend to be generic. Hamlin, in his exquisitely tailored suits, brings a cool intelligence to Ted that offsets the easy one-note villain penned. Griff is a believably low-key professor who sticks to his guns. William Schallert uses a voice not particularly big or strong to project so impeccably no syllable is lost. He also has some of the play's best lines. Admitting he's held on to power too long, he said, "I always stayed out playing too late, until it was too dark to see the ball." We miss him when darkness falls with the Act I curtain. The sad surprise of aging is captured by Vipond as Grover and the picture McCormack draws of what age has done to his once brilliant list of authors. He draws an alternately appalling and hilarious collage of wannabe writers by having their na´ve, pathetic and helplessly funny pitch letters read in voice-over at the opening of each scenes. Welcome comic relief is also provided by the sly quirkiness of Ravetch's Sheila.. McCormick is, at age 69, a promising new author with a flair for words.
There's a quiet passion in this bottom line: Have you ever looked up from a book and wondered how many others are doing the same thing?