Is there a more yawn-inducing subject for a play than a twentysomething gay man agonizing over the challenges of nurturing a relationship while pursuing a career as a creative artist? If you’re over 30, probably not. So it’s a minor achievement that Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s “Based on a Totally True Story” is a relatively painless bit of navel-gazing, saved by director Michael Bush’s tidy packaging, a personable cast and the prolific young writer’s apparent autobiographical sincerity. But despite its verbal athleticism, this ingratiating comedy about soft-centered characters in a hard-candy world is never more than cute — in both positive and pejorative senses.
Yale Drama grad Aguirre-Sacasa has a handful of well-received produced plays under his belt, a day job writing for Marvel Comics and a horror screenplay in development with Warner Bros. Working from what he knows, his new play centers on an overextended writer of superhero comicstrip “The Flash” who’s dividing his attention among his boyfriend, his play optioned by a Hollywood producer and the collapse of his parents’ marriage.
Sprinkled self-consciously with contempo pop culture references and landmarks of mid-2000s gay New York, the play borrows structurally from comicbooks, right down to its use of time-shifting phraseology like “Meanwhile, back in the present ….” As played by the sparky Carson Elrod, struggling writer Ethan Keene is a bookish, hipster-nerd version of the gee-whiz comicbook protag.
However, together with the heavy reliance on direct address, the predominance of reported action over performed action and the emphasis on an impersonalized, technology-dominated world (roughly half the dialogue is phone conversations), the comicstrip conceit conspires to keep the audience emotionally outside the thinly drawn central relationship.
Details of Ethan’s fledgling romance with Village Voice cultural critic Michael (Pedro Pascal) are reeled off, from their meeting in a Chelsea coffee shop through their early dates (a French ’50s horror movie at Film Forum, a Michael Cunningham reading at Barnes & Noble) to their shared likes (Rachael Ray, Anderson Cooper) and dislikes (Cirque du Soleil). But domestic harmony is threatened when whiny Michael starts to feel marginalized.
Ethan’s focus moves elsewhere when his play about a family in crisis is optioned by producer Mary Ellen (Kristine Nielsen). Like Julie White’s agent character in this season’s similarly lightweight and annoying “The Little Dog Laughed,” Mary Ellen balances coddling condescension with unapologetically crass commercial instincts and well-honed manipulation skills — softened here with a touch of the caring earth mother. Nielsen is funny, but she trowels on the cartoonish mannerisms way too thick, her bug-eyed eccentricity making the character seem half-demented.
Generally, the digs at Hollywood are pat, from the soul-crushing development process to the shallowness of L.A., embodied in a hunky, opportunistic actor played by Erik Heger in one of a series of diverting comic turns. Douglas Carter Beane’s observations in the Broadway-bound “Little Dog” struck the same note, both cases suggesting playwrights who lowered their pants for Hollywood and then cried rape.
There’s a little more depth in scenes with Ethan’s father (Michael Tucker), who further detracts from the writer’s emotional availability for Michael when he comes seeking advice on how to end his loveless marriage without hurting Ethan’s mother.
Working on Anna Louizos’ pop-art set of hard geometric outlines and bold colors, Bush’s production skips briskly through the advances and setbacks in the movie deal, the separation of Ethan’s parents and the increasing strain on his relationship with Michael. Like Ethan, the gabby play and the production rarely pause for breath.
Aguirre-Sacasa neatly underlines the lessons learned from Ethan’s emotional missteps, from refusing to slow down and take stock to compartmentalizing his commitments rather than sharing with his partner. But there’s a good-hearted uniformity to the characters that makes them somewhat dull. And in his efforts to draw out the universal aspects of the Ethan-Michael relationship and make it palatable to broader (read: straight) audiences, the playwright neuters his gay characters.