Playwright Roger Kumble sharply and often comically defines three 26-year-old Northwestern U. graduates, representatives of Generation X, as they try to make it in L.A. He grooms the same turf as Michael Tolkin/Robert Altman did in “The Player,” yet the writing and details are strong, and the story offers a fresh take on greed, hype and Hollywood success.
David (Dana Ashbrook) enthusiastically works and grovels for a senior agent at Creative Artists Agency. After three years of petty labor, David hopes to make the rank of junior agent soon.
As seen through the eyes of his law-school girlfriend, Sandy (Kathryn Kelly), David (who once wanted to make meaningful films) is now so eager to grasp at success that he’s housesitting and calling room service for his boss a continent away.
David’s college roommate, Jeff (Jonathan Silverman), a coked-up minor screenwriter, arrives to talk Hollywood gossip, movie grosses, and the great life ahead of them.
When David obtains a negative reader’s report on Jeff’s latest script, Jeff calls the reader, Simon (Peter Spears), and invites him to the house. The Birkenstock-clad reader, committed to truth and principle, becomes a catalyst in their lives.
Though it’s clear the playwright intended David as protagonist, Sandy, as portrayed by Kelly, is far more interesting. Her need for real conversation and her self-reflection weigh more than David’s lost sense of purpose and plodding ambition.
Although Sandy is the angel to Jeff’s devil, both trying to latch onto David’s soul, it’s Sandy who goes through the transformation.
Ashbrook makes David likeable, showing the dying flames of the character’s decency. Silverman gives a convincing and hyperkinetic performance, revealing what’s appealing behind all that’s despicable.
Spears extends Simon’s reading job to all of life. The same honesty and evaluation he gives to scripts, he imparts to people. And Brendan Smith’s mailroom kid shows a recent film-school grad as a newly sprouted seed in the first stages of rationalization.
Director Jay Tannenbaum keeps his cast motivated and moving.
“Pay or Play” plays on Wednesdays and late Friday and Saturday nights.