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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
If you think you've seen every variation of the backstage play, consider Tabletop which has just settled into the American Place, after a brief summer debut at the Off-Off-Broadway Working Theater. Like any behind-the-scenes stage or screen story it has a temperamental director and an understudy waiting in the wings for a chance to be an important player. The TV studio this story's director rules over, however, doesn't produce the shows you watch, but the commercials that interrupt them -- in fact, not even the whole commercial, just the ten-second shots of a product so artfully arranged on a table " like a Cezanne still life."
After a hundred minutes of watching director Marcus Gordon (Rob Bartlett) and his crew on Dean Taucher's bona fide tabletop studio set, you'll know more than you ever thought you needed to know about what goes into capturing a perfect "pour" of a drink on camera. But in tapping into his first-hand tabletop experience, Rob Ackerman has come up with a play that cleverly uses this narrow niche work world as a stepping stone towards a broader look at how people view their work and at the interactions that involve large chunks of their lives.
By the time the last photogenically creamy Fruit Freeze is ready to be poured you'll know what makes Marcus tick, and what makes his five aides-de-food-beautiful put up with his bullying. The actors contribute greatly towards the audience's enjoyment of this unlikely theater work, especially the two who've been assigned the most interesting characters with the most complex relationship -- comedian Rob Bartlett as the chronically grumpy Marcus and Jeremy Webb as Ron the young Gopher he detests even though he's the only one who appreciates his his view of this esoteric craft as an art form (It's Ron who likens the Fruit Freeze setup to a Cezanne painting) .
The action spans a single day during which every attempt to get a tabletop shot just right goes askew. Ron, the much abused Gofer, muffs his chance to attempt a "pour" by spilling the carefully concocted camera ready Fruit Freeze all over the tabletop setup. A spot on an apple aborts another shoot. When the shot does work, Oscar (Harvey Blanks) the video technician messes up the tape. These mishaps, plus a nudgy client and inklings that the studio's business is under assault from younger more in tune with new methods competitors, contribute to an atmosphere that bristles with tension. Marcus slams in and out of his office, his assistant Andrea (Elizabeth Hanly Rice) snaps out orders like a drill sergeant, new setups are prepared.
All the while we have little interchanges that bring out each character's attitude towards the job and Marcus. While Marcus's tyrannical manner is prompted by his genuine love for the perfect product shot, Andrea's bossy efficiency stems from her determination to preserve the lifestyle the job has afforded her Though Marcus doesn't realize it, only Ron shares his artist's dedication to perfection. What's more, Ron, who sees himself as someone continuing the tradition of the ancient artists apprentices, is a far more inventive prop man than the cynical Jeffrey (Dean Nolen).
There is a good deal of amusing and thought-provoking dialogue here. But Connie Grappo's generally intelligent direction cannot hide Tabletop's flaws which are as hard to ignore as that spilled Fruit Freeze "pour" or the spot on the apple. The extra plot threads about Oscar's hardware store ambitions and Dave's love life are not only superfluous but trite. Even more damaging, Ron's rather abrupt transformation into the prop wizard who'll bring Marcus to his knees as he leads the studio back to its glory days turns an ultra realistic workplace drama into a phony David and Goliath fable. I think if Marcus Gordon instead of Rob Ackerman had been in charge of the denouement he would have made Marcus's final humiliating "please"-on-demand an inner-prompted, voluntary, and infinitely more convincing, "please."
A footnote on an instance of the art of playwriting imitating the art of the short story. A scene during which Marcos stops being a nasty workaholic long enough to talk about his weekend antiques quests is a turnaround of the ending of one of my favorite Roald Dahl stories, "Goodbye Mr. Chippendale." In Dahl's story an antique dealer discovers a flawless and priceless Chippendale secretary in an old farmhouse and to get it at the ultimate bargain tells the farmers he's only interested in the legs. When he gets to his truck he discovers that the farmers have taken him at his word, and chopped off the legs thus completely devaluing his prize. Marcus turns this into a revealing anecdote. He actually wants nothing but the table top (for his work, naturally), and himself cuts off the legs of a probably valuable table.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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>6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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