Like the heroine of her new play, Theresa Rebeck earned a doctorate in literature and went to Hollywood in search of a big paycheck, only to discover that everyone else was there for the same reason and that living for the big paycheck has a way of dissolving the soul. “The Family of Mann” is both her revenge play and the title of the “quality” sitcom her stand-in has been hired to work on, and — notwithstanding Rebeck’s experience writing for such wildly disparate series as “Brooklyn Bridge,””L.A. Law” and “Dream On”– neither the acrid play nor the dim sitcom within it is very convincing.
On the other hand, Julie White is wonderfully believable as Rebeck’s Cunegonde, here called Belinda — a brittle, quick-witted, high-strung naif prone to bouts of depression induced by the ongoing humiliation of butting heads with boneheads, boors and bullies on a daily basis.
As Belinda discovers early on, life with the TV set ain’t “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Then again, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was probably never “The Dick Van Dyke Show” either.
This past season, New York had Neil Simon conjuring up the gang that worked for Sid Caesar in “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” an unabashed gagfest with an overlay of nostalgia and affection; we also had John Patrick Shanley’s funny, coarse take on the movie side of the business, with “Four Dogs and a Bone.”
Rebeck may offer a feminist perspective on this cutthroat world, in which the men are sophomoric and the women objects of abuse. But she isn’t above turning the show’s only other woman writer, Sally (a deliciously malevolent Anne Lange), into Belinda’s bitchy nemesis.
The rest of the villains are the — guess what? — egomaniacal executive producer Ed (David Garrison), the unctuous suck-up of a director Bill (Richard Cox), Ren (Robert Duncan McNeill), the hayseed with whom Belinda has an unlikely affair, and Steve (Reed Birney), Sally’s burned-out writing partner. On the upside, there’s Clara (Lisa Gay Hamilton) the lowly p.a., a token black who suddenly sprouts angel wings only she and Belinda can see. If the symbolism is rather too heavy-handed, so are the solipsisms liberally sprinkled throughout the play. “The best part of us evaporates,” Belinda says, mournfully. “All that’s left is sitcoms.”
It’s not news that sitcoms rank right up there with sausage and the law as things whose creation you don’t want to know too much about. But even given the moronic, typically sexist banter in probably every writers’ room in Hollywood, TV scripters tend to work hard for those big paychecks.
The crew here doubles as the actors in the sitcom (the kind of staging challenge at which director Pamela Berlin excels).
But while the situation of “The Family of Mann” is current — grown children returning to the roost, as in CBS’ upcoming “The Boys Are Back”– the comedy is too stupid to have any credibility as a series that would last half a season, let alone get the pickup announced near the play’s end.
Derek McLane’s simple, ingenious set easily transforms from various behind-the-scenes locations to the sitcom set to the place (well, the bed, anyway) Belinda and Ren share, and Natasha Katz’s lighting catches, as always, the play’s shifting moods. Lindsay Davis’ costumes are character-perfect.
By the end, of course, Ren has become a pod — indeed, a pod with producer billing — despite Belinda’s efforts to make him quit. She’s such a saint you worry how she’ll survive the inevitable return to academe.
Rebeck, of course, returned to the company that produced her earlier comedies-with-attitude, “Spike Heels” and “Loose Knit,” both of which were more original than “The Family of Mann,” if similarly limited. Now that she’s picked her bone and sped her plow, maybe she’ll write a play that’s actually about something.