An amusing but unsurprising work, Howard M. Gould’s “Diva” takes a look at the travails of the sitcom writer as he’s violated by an unbearably egotistical star, a double-dealing agent and a television executive always looking for the easiest way out. Gould displays a degree of dexterity in revealing the layers of perfidy in reverse chronology, but the fact that folks behave this way in the TV biz ain’t exactly a news flash. The work remains a bit too obvious and even too restrained to sustain its desired stinging anger or campy outrageousness, which ultimately means “Diva” is more diversionary than biting. It’s sitcom writing masquerading as satirical playwriting about sitcoms.
Susan Blakely (“Rich Man, Poor Man”) portrays the titular star — the alluring but aging Deanna Denninger, who’s back on top with a hit show about a blunt-spoken widow who’s taken over her husband’s U.S. Senate seat. Jere Burns is the put-upon scribe Isaac Brooks, who slaves to create the scripts week after week, winning an Emmy for his efforts and in his own mind deserving a Purple Heart (“I’m spilling blood on every page!” he insists).
Isaac and Deanna have reached the end of their shared rope — he’s done listening to her creative suggestions, she’s done not being listened to. The explosion starts the play, with our sympathies firmly behind the passionate but practical writer against the monstrously illogical star, whose fits are coddled by the show’s non-writing executive producer Kurt Fast (Jonathan Hogan), her lapdog agent Barry (Paul Provenza) and her plastic toy of a boyfriend, Petey (Timothy Warmen).
From here, Gould moves back, slowly at first and then sometimes more rapidly, showing us how things reached this moment and providing a few effectively concealed turning points along the way. We still see plenty of Deanna’s overstuffed ego, but she never gets worse than she was at the start of the piece. The blame starts falling on others — the agent, the producer, even a bit on Isaac himself for being too trusting and naive and for getting himself into this fine mess in the first place.
This backward structure is very difficult to pull off, and Gould deserves credit for keeping the narrative clear and mining some laughs from the dramatic irony that is the raison d’etre of doing it this way. But there aren’t enough real complications here to unwind — in large measure because his characters, while more than one-sided, never emerge as having more than, say, a side and a half. There aren’t enough layers to these folks for Gould to peel away, and while it seems he wants our sympathies to shift at least a little along the way, that structural element never comes off with vigor. We pretty much just dislike everybody more and more.
There are a number of funny lines in “Diva,” particularly those having to do with Deanna’s famously expansive sexual history with a variety of participants. Blakely’s timing is solid, and she certainly doesn’t take this too far over the top to lose a certain reality, but there’s still a quality missing that keeps her Diva from being a truly persuasive star — and it’s not just that her voice sounds hoarse from strain. She can play the monster, but somehow she’s not a scary one; and she can play the seductress, but she doesn’t come off as irresistible.
While Blakely’s not quite big enough, Burns somehow isn’t quite small enough as Isaac. This is a character who’s easily manipulated by others, but perhaps because he’s so clearly based partially on the playwright (who exec produced “Cybill” — enough said), there’s some hesitancy to go all the way with this character’s weaknesses.
Provenza and Hogan do a good job of presenting the agent and producer — more walking jokes than characters — without giving away the punchlines.
Overall, Neel Keller’s production is strong, invested with a breezy but still energetic quality. The narrative beats all get hit, and the world of offices, restaurants, awards parties and sitcom sets is created with a nicely unpretentious, convincing simplicity by set designer Andrew Jackness, costume designer Candice Donnelly and lighting designer David Lee Cuthbert.