Theater’s take on show business is old business

ON THE BASIS OF THREE NEW PLAYS, it would seem that contemporary playwrights are drawing quite a bit on movies, TV and pop culture for their inspiration, rather than on real life and history. Since the writers in question have all had notable screenwriting experience, you’d think that they might have some fresh and provocative insights to offer concerning Hollywood, the business and the people in it. What’s most striking about the plays, however, aside from their general mediocrity, is that their visions of the film and TV world are so conventional and familiar.

The three shows are “Sunset Boulevard,” the musical adaptation of Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 film that’s been packing them in at the Shubert here since November, John Patrick Shanley’s jaded Off Broadway farce about filmmaking “Four Dogs and a Bone,” and Neil Simon’s current Broadway entry “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” about the writing team surrounding a Sid Caesar-like figure on a live TV series very much like “Your Show of Shows” in the early 1950s.

All three shows feature writers as central figures, and we all know what playwrights have always thought of writers who succumb to the siren song of Hollywood. Using a writer as a lead character has always been an easy way for the author to insert a surrogate into the action, the better to comment upon the depredations of the other characters. One reason the Joe Gillis character in “Sunset Boulevard” worked well on film was precisely that he was not a Wilder-Charles Brackett wise guy stand-in, but a fringe player with his own reasons to be jaundiced about the town and his position in it.

Unfortunately, the musical’s book and lyrics writers Don Black and Christopher Hampton (the latter the dramatist and scenarist of “Dangerous Liaisons,” among other fine credits) offer no new takes on the Hollywood surrounding Norma Desmond’s private world, other than to emphasize a phantom-like gothic quality. The good lines are nearly all Wilder and Brackett’s , and Gillis, due to his callowness, seems more than ever like a male spider fatally caught in a black widow’s web.

I SAW THE SHOW at the pre-opening press preview, which was attended not only by legit critics but at least half of the film critic corps from New York and Los Angeles. I thought everyone was shaking their heads with dismay along with me during intermission, so I was stunned by what I can only term the great generosity of the reviews that shortly appeared. The so-called mixed-to-negative notices were not nearly as bad as I would have written, while the more positive notices, including a Sunday piece by former New York Times film critic Vincent Canby, were positively glowing. It’s just beyond me that anyone who knows the film would take this musical effort at all seriously.

Far more astounding, though, are the cartwheels some of the Gotham scribes performed on behalf of “Four Dogs and a Bone,” a singularly mirthless comedy that delivers the scoop about how venal and unfair the film business is. The very short two-acter was evidently dashed off after Shanley’s distasteful experiences on “Joe Versus the Volcano” (no mention of how he was treated on the Oscar-winning “Moonstruck,” of course), and spotlights — what else? — a bottom-line-minded producer at odds with a principled New York playwright (now who could he be based on?).

On structural dramatic terms alone, the slight piece veers off in a curious direction by dwelling on the catty competition between an older stage actress and a manipulative young starlet, a pairing that might have been amusing in a 1930s Warner Bros. backstage programmer but seems impossibly contrived and pointlessly nasty today. It seems that, like their much more illustrious counterparts back in the 1920s and 1930s, playwrights and New York theater critics still need to feel superior to Hollywood and its denizens. But, as New York playwright Jeff Sweet remarked, the only play he would want to see about the film world now would be one that celebrates it, one that would emphasize the comraderie and creativity that come into play, a sort of theatrical “Day for Night.”

BY CONTRAST, in “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” Neil Simon demonstrates that he at least knows how to recapitulate some of his own collaborative experiences in a pleasant way, even if the result is pretty insubstantial. The “Your Show of Shows” writing team included, at various times, such future comedy legends as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner and Simon himself, and even though the author hasn’t chosen to entirely identify his characters with biographical precision, he does succeed in conjuring up the atmosphere of merciless baiting and bantering that believably describes the colorful group of witty misfits.

Although the one-liners fly fast and furious for awhile, there would need to be at least twice as many to satisfactorily wallpaper the two acts, so the play seems tuckered out well before final curtain. More seriously, though, Simon hasn’t come up with the dramatic underpinnings that might have given the comedy some weight. Max Prince, the Sid Caesar figure, heads off to do futile battle with the nasty network that would dilute the show, which once again dredges up the old art vs. commerce angle, and the spectre of McCarthyism is dragged in to sober everyone up at times.

The latter might have served a greater dramatic purpose if one or more of the writers were threatened by the blacklist, putting the ethical standards of the others into question. Instead, Simon pushes some automatic sentiment buttons about how the characters really love each other underneath all the abuse, and the play rather limps to a close.

For the prices you have to pay –$ 60 top for “Sunset Boulevard” in L.A., $ 50 for “Laughter” on Broadway, $ 37.50 for “Bone” in Greenwich Village — you’d like to expect a bit more of the unexpected from these writers’ views on the writer’s life.

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