There’s a widely held opinion in show business that authors are hopelessly inept at pitching their own products. No one will doubt it after watching “Pitch to the Star,” Donald Margulies’ slicingly satirical one-act play. Margulies (Pulitzer Prize winner for “Dinner With Friends”) also takes wickedly penetrating potshots at producers, executive assistants and stars, exposing the rampant ignorance, egomania and manipulation that precede acceptance of any script. “Pitching” is part of a Strasberg Creative Center program that features another one-act, “Women in Motion,” but this moderately entertaining two-character comedy is only a warmup for the main event and fades quickly from memory.
“Women in Motion” trails girlfriends on a Caribbean vacation. As confident Libby (Chantal Bushelle) and neurotic, insecure Monica (Rebecca Ling), both actresses are excellent, conveying that deadly undertow of competition lurking beneath so many best-buddy relationships. Monica makes her accusation — “You were in the Xerox room with Mike?” — sound like the most heinous of crimes, and when Libby expresses rage that Monica has taken over their room and bed with a lover, it strikes a chord women can identify with. But the dialogue doesn’t carve deeply enough, and the resolution is unsatisfying. There’s a sense that this promising subject needs more fleshing out, even for a one-act.
No such difficulty exists with “Pitching.” From the moment we meet sellout producer Dick Feldman (Robert Lipton), his calculating assistant Laurie (Rashida Jones) and honest, unsophisticated writer Peter (Matt Champagne), the stage is set for a lacerating, in-depth look at the way TV development functions. Peter has written a story called “Working Mom” and Feldman tips him off about their potential leading lady: “Stars don’t know how to be a friend…. They’re suspicious of everyone…. They don’t like people.” This unnerving advice is followed by dire warnings never to use such forbidden words as “explore” and “irony,” and to avoid all drama because “funny is money.” Peter gasps, “I thought we were going for something gritty and socially relevant,” provoking the horrified response, “Who said?”
Thoroughly unhinged by contradictory input, Peter now has to face star Dena Strawbridge (Peggy Lipton). Dena has a few script comments: Remove mention of children (even though the show, as the author protests wildly, is called “Working Mom”), and set it in Wisconsin instead of New Jersey, because that’s where she was born. By the time Dena decides show could be a “kind of Moonstruck-Fried Green Tomatoes-fish out of water-Beverly Hills Cop thing” and Laurie argues that it should be “Moonstruck-Working Girl-Parenthood-Tracy Chapman urban grit,” we sympathize with the dazed, bewildered writer and wait for him to explode.
The cast has ideal chemistry, possibly due to the fact that Peggy and Robert Lipton are siblings and Rashida Jones is Peggy’s daughter. Peggy Lipton is such a stylish, glamorous and assured comedienne that one only regrets she didn’t follow this acting path throughout her career. Robert, whether stretched on his couch or seated by a desk overflowing with scripts, humorously embodies every crass, smarmy hustler in Hollywood. Jones is charming, sexual and predatory as the two-faced Laurie, and Champagne registers totally real, stupefied reactions when he reveals his age to be 32 and the others try to pressure him into saying he’s 25 (“Everybody loves a prodigy,” Feldman explains.) Costumed by Andrea Finn in drab brown shirt and pants, wearing dark-rimmed glasses, he’s both nerd and hero, and Champagne cleverly projects his hunger for success and stubborn refusal to compromise.
Director Andre Nemec finds exactly the right timing and tone, sustaining laughter without resorting to caricature. It’s to his credit that we understand, rather than hate, the self-absorbed star and the grasping producer, and feel a jaded ambivalence when the writer’s burst of integrity spells doom to the show he covets.