Playing a desperate, scheming film producer whose time has past, Michael Lerner delivers a bravura performance in Jon Robin Baitz’s “Mizlansky/ Zilinsky.” Always in motion and with a perseverance that merits wonderment, Lerner’s Mizlansky fits his behavior to the moment — chiding, then flattering, then screaming — and if that arsenal of efforts doesn’t work, he’ll beg and berate. If necessary, and it often is, he’ll bribe.
Mizlansky is, in short, the familiar Hollywood caricature with lots of truth in it. So why, despite a manic and highly entertaining turn from Lerner and fine performances from a capable cast, does this play feel so very flat? Not insightfully daring enough to be successful as satire, and lacking the crisp emotional drama that has marked Baitz’s previous efforts, “Mizlansky/Zilinsky” disappoints not because there’s anything bad there, but because it’s all just too “on the nose.”
Mizlansky is the direct descendant of Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock in “The Producers.” In a similar vein, he’s given up trying to make hits and is now concentrating on making “tax shelters.” In this case, Mizlansky’s scheme involves recorded Bible stories, and he’s about to close a multi-million-dollar deal with a group of investors headed by Southerner Horton De Vries (Wayne Rogers). But the IRS is already on his tail, much to the dismay of Mizlansky’s harried young attorney Miles (Maury Ginsberg).
His assistant/story editor/houseboy Paul (Will McCormack, playing a young version of the playwright) keeps the calls from accountants and creditors at bay while Mizlansky tries to pull the magic rabbit from the hat one more time. Needing a couple of respectable names involved, Mizlansky recruits help from Alan Tolkin (George Wyner), who’s easily prodded into signing on, and from Alan’s sobered alcoholic friend Lionel Hart (Richard Kline), long-ago star of a TV series about an art detective.
But the greatest obstacle to Mizlansky’s success comes in the form of his longtime partner and best pal Zilinsky (David Groh). Always the classier of the couple, the one with style and taste, Zilinsky has, after many long years, hit his limit, and is giving deep thought to telling the IRS all he knows. To Mizlansky, Zilinsky is having the kind of nervous breakdown where you can still go to lunch. To Zilinsky, Mizlansky has finally self-destructed by ruining all the people who tried to help him. “You are a cancer to my soul,” says Zilinsky to Mizlansky, “even though I love you.”
Baitz sets the play in 1984 and tries hard to craft this era as a time of massive transition for L.A. Alan tells his friend Lionel that they’re on the verge of becoming “remaindered people,” that somehow there’s no place for them in the new Hollywood. But the distance Baitz provides himself by making this a pseudo-period piece also takes away from the edginess he desires.
There’s a sense of holding back in the writing here. In part, this is undoubtedly to try and keep the play from speaking only to a Hollywood crowd (and the work is so full of in-jokes that it’s hard to imagine it making the national rounds). But the result is that the play never goes far enough in plotting or character to feel more than derivative. The lines are funny without having genuine wit, the scenes advance the story without making us care how it turns out. Perhaps if Baitz went further in telling the story from Paul’s point of view, of establishing rather than just hinting at a coming-of-age structure, the work would feel less out of focus.
Director Nicholas Martin fluidly stages the scenes in Mizlansky’s picturesque apartment, but whenever the play leaves this central setting, the production feels awkward. Karyl Newman’s set simply doesn’t accommodate the peripheral scenes, particularly an essential turning point when we first see Mizlansky and Zilinsky together. But most importantly, what’s lacking here is a fuller sense of the relationships among the people.
The characters are well-drawn and individually all well-acted (including offstage cameos by Swoosie Kurtz and Andrea Martin), but for a story about a man who can’t help manipulating his best friends, and who considers even the slightest hesitation a form of betrayal, the interactions feel vague and blurry. The characters are put in service of the jokes rather than the other way around.