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A CurtainUp Review
Mizlansky/Zilinsky or "Schmucks"
By Elyse Sommer
I've seen all of Jon Robin Baitz's plays and while only Substance of Fire has been flawless, all have been well worth seeing . Because, Baitz like Arthur Miller is a playwright with a strong moral conscience, a Baitz play is invariably an experience that you don't forget as soon as you leave the theater.
Now Mr. Baitz who still fits the "young playwright" tag has dipped into his literary trunk to take a backward look at the tinsel town where he served a stint as a producer's assistant during his twenties. Excavated from that trunk is his 1984 one-acter about two Hollywood impresarios of fast-buck sleaze, (one apparently inspired by his long ago boss), now expanded to two hours and ten minutes (2 acts and 5 scenes ). The resulting movieland comedy has enough one-liners to make you wonder if you've stumbled into a Neil Simon comedy.
Its premise in a nutshell is this: Davis Mizlansky (Nathan Lane) and Sam Zilinsky (Lewis J. Stadlen) are two producers whose deal making skills and ambition exceed the quality of the movies that built Mizlansky's hilltop mansion and help Zilinsky to indulge his taste for the finer things in life (including elegant clothes and psychoanalysis). Their ride on the tinsel town gravy train is grinding to a halt. Mizlansky, hounded by creditors and the IRS investigating past creative accounting practices, tries to shore up his marginal hold on the Hollywood dream with a tax shelter scheme involving Bible tapes for children. Zilinsky, apparently burned out from a business he's come to detest and a partner he disdains has headed East but Mizlansky needs him to convince a rich Oklahoma investor (Larry Pine) to pour much needed big bucks into the Bible tape racket. Others needed to hold up the collapsing enterprise are Mizlansky's lawyer (Lee Wilkof), a writer (Mark Blum) to "appraise" the records and a "name" actor (Paul Sand) to narrate the tapes. Not to mention a would be screen writer and Baitz's alter-ego ( Glenn Fitzgerald) to fetch the right lipid-friendly brand of tuna fish.
Just seeing this other, funnier side of the usually serious Baitz is worth the trip to the Manhattan Theatre Club's main stage; as is Nathan Lane's bravura display of his ability to portray the deeper layers beneath the comic persona. This last is highlighted in a scene towards the end of the first act in which Mizlansky in a moment of total despair pumps the exercise bicycle heretofore an odd prop in his Art Nouveau hilltop villa. Yet, even with Lane, who has become one of our national comedy treasures, playing the main half of Baitz's Sunshine Boys a.k.a. schmucks, this is less your standard satiric comedy genre than a commedia dell' morality. In fact, even when the laugh lines come as fast as mud sliding down a Hollywood hillside, the playwright's hallmark seriousness is never far from the surface and finally wins the day.
I should amend that last sentence. Mr. Baitz does indeed show himself to be as adept at writing with the theater's laughing mask in place as with the serio-tragic one. However, in the final analysis, largely because the relationship between the two main characters isn't as center stage as it should be, (and as it is in Simon's The Sunshine Boys in which Stadlen has portrayed Ben Silverman), the tears of regret drown out the tears of laughter, so that the end result doesn't satisfy as fully as it could and should. Not having seen the original one-acter, I don't know if that focused on the inherent comic drama of the partners' good cop/bad cop, good taste/bad taste personalities. Whether added or expanded, these secondary characters add enormously to the pleasures of this production but like the somewhat unintegrated shift in tone they are partly responsible for the tremors that weaken the portrait of the main characters.
Whether you leave completely satisfied or sharing my misgivings about the final scenes, Mizlansky/Zilinsky Or "Schmucks" is highly entertaining, well-cast and stylishly produced, and more than ably directed by Joe Mantello. The only thing wrong with Lewis J. Stadlen's Zilinsky is that he comes on stage too late in the game. He and Lane's interaction is richly nuanced with timing that's more precise than the finest watch. His reference to his psychiatrist, a holocaust survivor who "virtually eliminated stage fright" and who sees same sex lust in every male he counsels are delivered with a deadpan expression that would make you laugh even if his lines weren't funny. Lane's counter thrusts are equally hilarious, as when he accuses his upwardly yearning, Horace Walpole reading partner of being "some kind of Park Avenue Jewish WASP."
The rest of the cast couldn't be better either. Jennifer Albano makes the most of a very brief role as sexy masseur -- a bigger part than the voice-overs by Christine Baranski as Sylvia Zilinsky and Julie Kavner as Esther Mizlansky. Glen Fitzgerald makes a fine go-fer and Lee Wilkof, who seems to specialize in agitated types, is right at home as Mizlansky's lawyer. Mark Blum who I last saw as the one standout in an otherwise uninspiring summer theater revival of an Alan Aykbourn play (Woman In Mind) gives just the right touch of compromising greed to the role of a desperate writer who's persuaded not only to involve himself in the bible scam but to enlist his actor friend (Paul Sand) with talk "about hope" which Mizlansky offers "at 10 percent below cost" which as he puts it "is considerably better than any of his new agents will do." Interestingly, the actor who's the schlumpiest of this assemblage of has-beens, has the best lines and is as close to the evening's hero as anyone ( true to his name -- Lionel Hart). The only non-Jewish character and catalyst for the morality tale hiding behind the laughs is the oily, anti-semitic Oklahoma investor Horton De Vries played to perfection by Larry Pine.
When all these characters are finally gathered together in Milanzky's living room to finalize the Bible tape deal the sparks that fly back and forth could burn through the fog that looms outside the picture window as a very real metaphor of the blurred morals of the people occupying the room facing it. The whole set, not just its view, is another well deserved feather in Santo Loquasto's cap. Brian MacDevitt's lighting of that set is nothing short of brilliant and Ann Roth's costumes are witty character sketches in and of themselves -- from Nathan Lane's gaudy shirts (especially the one with the print that is repeated on the back pockets of his oh-so-tacky Hollywood jeans), Paul Sands' waist-length black suit with matching shoulder bag and Larry Pine's turquoise suit and bolo tie are just some of the chuckle inducing outfits.