Rhode Island playwright and screenwriter Tom Griffin’s wildly popular play “The Boys Next Door” received more productions in this country in 1989 than any other play and has been seen worldwide. Griffin’s latest play, his sub-Sam Shepard “Mrs. Sedgewick’s Head,” will not repeat its predecessor’s remarkable success.
This is Griffin’s Hollywood play, his written reaction to the love-hate relationship virtually every writer who becomes involved with movies evinces. Following Griffin’s creation of some half-dozen film scripts for MGM, Pathe Entertainment, Warner Bros. and Ted Turner, it emerges less as a piece of theater than as a grab bag of miscellaneous movie scenes. It’s self-consciously smart-ass and never seems to know where its focal point is.
Is it the presumably crazy upstate New York novelist/screenwriter (Timothy Crowe) who retained an entire novel in his memory while in prison for the “mercy killing” of his brother (Dan Welch), had it published under the hifalutin pseudonym Stephen Dedalus and is now playing hard to get as to whether he’ll write the screenplay? Is it the loud, crass movie producer (Joseph Hindy), who is as much a cliche as his Gucci loafers? Is the play about madness and inbreeding in the sticks? Or how hustlers and slime-buckets dominate Hollywood? Griffin doesn’t make his audience care one way or the other.
His play’s construction is clumsy, taking place in both upstate New York and Los Angeles, as well as on a plane in between, and is set in the present and on the day five years earlier when the killing occurred. Neither director David Wheeler nor designer Eugene Lee has lavished enough imagination on the production to pull together the play’s labyrinthine loose ends. Lee has simply given up on the Hollywood side of the play so that, for instance, meals in tony L.A. restaurants take place at a rural kitchen table.
The play opens with a wildly overwritten power luncheon between two Hollywood types, Hindy’s producer and a ruthless newcomer (Jonathan Fried). It should be cut. To firmly establish the fact that we’re watching a slice of the film world, the production then throws a credit crawl on a screen giving every last name of absolutely everyone involved with TRC’s “Mrs. Sedgewick’s Head.” It’s a funny comment on overloaded film credits but doesn’t help the play.
The same is true of Chaplin footage in Act 2 and a scene in which two men sit on kitchen chairs and mime being in a car while color footage of a rural road is projected behind them. The production ends up with the worst of both worlds, film and stage.
Griffin also has created several gratuitous characters, none more so than the hayseed caretaker of the play’s upstate New York cottage (Robert J. Colonna) with a penchant for misquoting. Bits of shtick about an incompetent L.A. waiter also are unnecessarily elongated.
Most of the acting is better than the play, from Hindy’s rasping Hollywood boor to Crowe’s tortured writer (the title of the play and of his novel is explained in a long monologue about a Mrs. Sedgewick taking him to a freak show when he was a child, a traumatic, formative event).
As the most approachable character, a production company executive with intelligence and scruples, Nance Williamson keeps her head well above water even when called upon to suddenly sleep with the manic-depressive writer. As his housekeeper/secretary — who may also be his sister and/or former sister-in-law — Cynthia Strickland gives more to her role than the playwright has.
If “Mrs. Sedgewick’s Head” is Griffin’s attempt at revenge on Hollywood, Hollywood has the last laugh.