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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
It takes even more optimism to face rejections from agents and producers. As Graham, the character Brooks created and and also plays, puts it "Even films that get made, die a slow death on the festival circuit. Look at cable-- all those on-Demand movies no one's ever heard of. . . it's an empty graveyard where the only sound is that of the writers getting dropped by agents."
It also takes optimism to keep a play about that shark infested dreamland, Hollywood, from suffering from over-familiarity. And the use of a Faustian bargain to establish conflict is not likely to make that less of a possibility. Scott Brooks has given his basic plot device some attention-holding twists and turns. But, while ScreenPlay did hold my attention, there simply weren't enough astonishing or astounding moments in those twists and turns.
The play covers fifteen years in the lives of three college friends —, one of whom, a failed writer, is tempted by a sudden get rich and famous opportunity. To Mr. Brooks' credit, this is not just a Hollywood story but also an exploration of the effect of jealousy on friendship and a social commentary on personal and business ethics.
Graham and Dean (Jonathan Sale) are the cynosure characters. The women — Suzie (Heather Dilly) and Lisa (Diana DeLaCruz) — also figure importantly in the arc leading to the cynical finale of the plot driving deal that could finally bring one of Dean's scripts to the screen.
Suzie is a classmate who we meet in the very first scene. She's in Dean's bed the morning after a big graduation party. When Dean's friend Graham comes to fetch him for their big day he realizes that his friend and Suzie have obviously spent the night together. This puts a damper on Graham's triumph as the class valedictorian since he's not been too buried in the books to have a major crush on Suzie.
To furtther shadow the friendship, Graham and Dean both want to be screen writers. Graham has been accepted to the University of Southern California's graduate film school, while the less studious Dean is on standby. Though Graham's life takes an American Dream turn and Dean becomes a disappointed American Dreamer, Graham's success is a compromise dream. Unlike Dean, who according to the script is a gifted writer, Graham's s talent is to exploit getting rich opportunities. Having made a fortune while living in London he's back in Dean and Suzie's orbit planning to buy his way into LaLa Land's creative inner circle.
Suzie also has had her career and personal disappointments (a satisfying 5 years in the Peace Corps, less satisfying work as a travelconsultant, a failed marriage). Reconnecting with the now wealthy Graham affects her deeply ("I felt like you pushed my reset button, ya know? In a small way, I remembered who I am -- or was to a few people").
The up factor in Dean's life is his fiancee, the lovely, supportive Lisa. He's not making a lot of money, but neither is he out in the streets. I know quite a few people who would love to have his job with a web site design firm. While the job isn't Dean's cup of vocational tea, it does apparently enable him to spend a lot of his work time writing a screenplay, The Conductor.
Having abandoned the idea of screenwriting fame and fortune, Dean hasn't shown The Conductor to anyone, but Lisa discovers it in his drawer while putting away laundry and is convinced it's the best thing he's ever done. Her encouragement, Graham's return to Hollywood and about to become a producer, and Suzie's urging Dean to come to Graham's birthday party — it all points to a setup for ending Dean's resignation to living an ordinary life of quiet discontent.
To avoid being a spoiler I'll resist going into details about the scheme Graham cooks up to bring both his and Dean's youthful dreams to fruition. But, per my earlier reference to the Faustian bargain as the play's foundation stone, it's to be expected that Graham, like Lisa, liked The Conductor and wants to produce it though there are strings attached to his doing so. And yes, Suzie is on hand when the deal, in which money is bound to be a factor. She's also very much involved in the aftermath of that fateful meeting.
Unfortunately, there are several problems to prevent the Faustian deal from being either believable or anything that anyone except a desperate pauper would consider. While Dean's script is touted as the next Schindler's List it actually sounds more like a copycat of that famous movie. Which brings the whole brouhaha about it's the script's greatness and Dean's talent into question. Another problem is that, given the cost of living and the figures one hears involving really big, you're-set-for life Hollywood deals, the money involved in this Faustian bargain is somewhat underwhelming.
Though Scott Brooks plays Graham with devilish zest, Suzie has a point when she says that "Graham isn't the devil, he's just really good at being Graham." Neither is he immune to having his deviltry backfire on him.
As Graham is not really the devil, so Dean is not really a victim. Brooks obviously intended for Dean 's less attractive side to show, but Jonathan Sale shows it to the point of often sounding like a whiner. The women, especially Heather Dilly's Suzie, do add nicely to the relationship complications.
Director Jenny Greeman sees to it that all the hope, chicanery and regrets packed into the 95 minutes transition fluidly from past to present, from college dorm to Dean's apartment, to Graham's hotel room, and various other locations (including two of the most entertaining scenes in which the actors are right in the audience). Production and lighting designers Lex Liang and Ian Wehrle effectively arrange for a variety of locations without any fancy props or equipment.
Somehow this modestly entertaining and staged play made me think of The Importance of Being Earnest currently being given a much more lavish high profile Broadway production. If you'll recall, Miss Prism wrote a novel and mixed up her script with the baby in her charge so that it was left in a handbag on a Victoria Station bench. That novel prompted prompted her much quoted standard issue description of fiction: "The good ended happily, the bad unhappily." ScreenPlay hasn't a chance at the kind of long lasting fame of Wilde's comic masterpiece, but it's to be applauded for bypassing at least a few pre-conceived patterns as to who in a work of fiction should end up happy or unhappy. As a matter of fact, you may just discover that it manages to get away with having it both ways.