The ghost of Clifford Odets hovers over David Wiener’s “System Wonderland,” not just in the self-consciously cynical dialogue or the luxurious beachfront living room in which “The Big Knife” could be instantly staged but in the retro set of musty attitudes about Hollywood and creativity that pervade a play nominally set in the present. Screen legend Evelyn Kincade (Shannon Cochran) says her writer husband Jerry Wolf (Robert Desiderio) “fears authenticity”; it’s a charge that could equally be laid at Wiener’s door.
In one sense, it’s refreshing to see a play trafficking in a creative triangle rather than a romantic one. Though there’s an attraction between new assistant Aaron (John Sloan) and the movie star, it’s the magnetism to be found between raging talents, not raging libidos. And the setup is logical enough: Concerned that Jerry’s new script is delayed, the producer sends Aaron over to help out. A protege, thinks Jerry; a Trojan horse, thinks Evelyn.
As is true so often, the devil is in the details. The team’s story concerns a married couple and a fisherman: Odets’ 1952 “Clash by Night,” perhaps? In any case it sounds like post-war film noir, nothing a major would produce today. Play’s whole industry frame of reference is a retro fantasy, a wonderland that never was. Never are the words “indie” or “classics division” or “DVD” uttered, and the moguls described are all out of a cliche, Louis B. Mayer mode.
Aaron is a Southern California film grad who appears never to have written, directed or photographed so much as a short subject, doesn’t know industry jargon and can barely type with two fingers. (Sure, it’s a manual typewriter, so maybe he couldn’t change the ribbon, but any child of the computer age would know that keyboard.) More importantly, his script contributions are supposed to be brilliant and Jerry’s hackneyed, yet everything each writes sounds the same: overwrought and easily several decades too late, undercutting the central premise of new Hollywood blood supplanting the old.
And what old Hollywood is Wiener envisioning, anyway? Evelyn reminisces about hanging with Marty and Francis and Dennis Hopper, which places their heyday in the high-flying ’70s, yet Jerry’s Oscar dates from 1994. He certainly behaves more like a one-hit wonder than a filmmaker of decades-long prominence.
Meanwhile, a boozy Evelyn mutters, “It’ll be like old times; glory” as she watches her old clips on a silent projector like Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.” She complains that her only fate is a box on “Hollywood Squares,” as if she never heard of doing a TV series, a low-budget indie or theater as a way of returning to the public eye. Her awareness of mores is equally dim: She’s shocked, shocked to learn that Aaron has used his producer’s-daughter girlfriend to get ahead. What? In this town?!
The diction assigned to all three characters veers from Group Theater purple (“I disgust myself. That’s what I confront”; “The glittering people are the ones pretending”) to rat-a-tat Mametian gobbets minus the riveting subtext (“You do?” “I — well yes. Don’t you?” “Don’t I what?” “I mean, Jack told me you needed help and –” “I need help?” “Yes.” “I need your help?” “Yes. No. No.”) The performers deliver it all gamely but lack the footing to make it work.
A play about a once-hot ’70s team adrift in modern Hollywood and reaching out to a young hotshot for reorientation could be exceptionally rich and psychologically true, and at times that seems to be what Wiener thinks he’s written. But his carelessness, or even refusal, to set his story in a recognizable industry reality leaves us torn between the sharply written and the sluggish.
When it makes contact with real life, “System Wonderland” is engaging indeed. As Jerry teaches Aaron the folly of self-deprecation in a narcissistic town or impersonates an exec at a pitch meeting, or Evelyn demonstrates the silliness of one of Jerry’s lines in context, you can feel the glee of a talented cast finally sinking its teeth into gutsy material, while David Emmes’ direction kicks into high gear with sure pacing and evocative stage pictures. It’s the falseness linking those moments that is so dispiriting.