“Sides: The Fear Is Real,” a series of comedy sketches about the auditioning actor’s life written and performed by Gotham-based Mr. Miyagi’s Theater Company, lacks a secure handle on its scope or point of view. Troupe, in a limited L.A. engagement under the auspices of East West Players, boasts talent and energy, but their writing gifts are inferior to their performing skills. The fear may be real, but the characters and situations too often are not.
Promising beginning sees the six arriving for an audition on Mitsuharu Isa’s crummy gray-walled set, evocative of every crummy gray-walled room in which a thesp ever tried to book a job. (The mismatched folding chairs are an inspired touch.) Interplay of tension, suspicion, camaraderie and one-upmanship is spot-on.
But then they come out for their individual audition pieces, some funny (an actress singing “Circle of Life” a cappella as she enacts every animal), some not (a hammy “To be or not to be”). But all are preposterous, taken sheerly as auditions. Are these characters supposed to be recognizable types? Are they here for us to jeer at, as in every painful first episode of “American Idol”? What is being satirized here?
You’d think a company this accomplished — and battle-tested in the ongoing war for winning roles — would be able to zero in on the craziness with precision, and maybe with a certain amount of affection as well. Too much of “Sides” settles for diffuse potshots and cartoonish overkill, and helmer Anne Kauffman doesn’t do enough to ground the sequences in reality.
The most effective scenes come out of troupe members’ ethnicity. Perhaps because the personal connection is present, there’s real sting in an actor’s gradual realization that he is to play a store clerk as a thickly accented stereotype, or another’s desperate improv to stay in the running (“Hi, I’m Chip Kim…” “I’m sorry, we want to cast this role Japanese.” “…Murasawa”). And where there’s sting, there’s humor.
Show’s low point is a round-robin of tryouts for the role of a streetwise punk in a cheesy exploitation pic, each take equally broad and unfocused. The heart sinks at the knowledge that sequence won’t end until all six have had their shot.
Curiously lacking from “Sides” is the sense of fellow-feeling that made “A Chorus Line,” for instance, so moving. The six performers seem heedless that they are engaged in the same calling as every actor, talented or not, at whom they poke fun — and yes, the same calling as every director, playwright and casting person, no matter how clueless or despicable.
Finale might have redeemed matters through some kind of acknowledgment of showbiz solidarity. Instead, cast breaks into a silver-lame-costumed hip-hop production number inspired by “Medea.” The theme seems to be “See? We’re not the freaks and geeks you’ve been watching all night; we six really have what it takes!” It adds one last note of condescension to a hit-or-miss evening.