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Working Title

Writing a play about a failed playwright takes guts -- comparisons come too easily. Andrew Bergman, no doubt bolstered by his resume of terrific screenplays ("The In-Laws,""The Freshman,""Honeymoon in Vegas"), takes the gamble with "Working Title." Comparisons come too easily.

With:
Cast: Susan Blackwell (Laura Teichman), David Chandler (Alan Teichman), Jerry Grayson (Bobby Teichman), Stephen O'Reilly (Donnie DiNardo), John Seitz (Harry Crane), Gia Carides(Marie Oldam), Douglas Weston (Sandy Littweiler).

Writing a play about a failed playwright takes guts — comparisons come too easily. Andrew Bergman, no doubt bolstered by his resume of terrific screenplays (“The In-Laws,””The Freshman,””Honeymoon in Vegas”), takes the gamble with “Working Title.” Comparisons come too easily.

Abandoning the gentle spirit that floats through the best of his movies, Bergman tries for something a bit darker here, and ends up with an uncomfortable mix of self-pity and meanness. Worst of all, he invokes the Holocaust and a gratuitously vulgar death as the agents of a staggeringly self-centered epiphany.

Bergman’s bad scribe is Alan Teichman (David Chandler), a writer whose ideals and ambitions far outdistance his talent. With a couple of minor films and a theatrical flop his only credits, Teichman has staked his wobbly career on a concentration camp screenplay called “Stuttgart,” an endeavor even his clear-headed wife, Laura (Susan Blackwell), knows to be beyond both his artistic reach and spiritual understanding: Teichman, it is suggested, has become alienated from his own Jewishness. As he awaits word from his agent and producer at a Hamptons beach house (apparently even bad screenwriting pays), Teichman mother-hens his visiting brother Bobby (Jerry Grayson), who’s recuperating from heart surgery, argues with Laura and twists himself into a state of panic. His insecurities are well-founded: When his producer, Harry Crane (John Seitz), drops by the beach house, it’s clear the news from Hollywood is not good.

Fraying Alan’s nerves further is the fact that Harry’s new bride is a starlet with whom Alan had a secret affair several years earlier. As the play’s first act talks its way into this darkly farcical setup, a storm is brewing, quite literally, trapping everyone in the beach house but Laura, who’s gone off with a young tennis pro for a lesson.

So far so, well, OK. But in a ludicrous act-one closer, the tennis pro comes stumbling into the house, bloodied and bandaged, announcing that a “Nazi from East Hampton” has smashed his car into Laura’s. This is no figurative Nazi either — it’s a real, living, breathing Nazi soon to be extradited to Tel Aviv.

And resurrecting one of the hoariest urban legends (put to much better use in “The World According to Garp”), Bergman has Laura killed while performing a sexual act on the young stud.

All of this is relayed in the exposition-heavy second act, which, as Bergman’s plot and dialogue become outlandishly contrived, is played increasingly for laughs.

As the contrivances pile up (would Laura’s funeral really be held in the vacation community rather than Manhattan?), Alan turns increasingly inward. Booted off the “Stuttgart” project by the stereotypically crass producer and equally cliched Brit agent (Douglas Weston), Alan determines to write a script closer to his heart: He’ll write about the Nazi, the car accident and Judaism.

That Alan seems more concerned with career rejuvenation than his wife’s death is an irony clearly beyond Bergman. But then nothing in this play — from infidelity and death to open-heart surgery and the Holocaust — has any relevance beyond its relationship to Alan’s personal angst. When Alan decides, near play’s end, to abandon writing and become a rabbi — yes, a rabbi — the audience is left to tally up the tragedies that brought about career enlightenment.

At least Bergman understands that career known as Hollywood. His dialogue, often clunky with exposition, is nonetheless knowing and witty when it addresses the film business.

Bergman’s Hollywood insights, though, don’t add up to fully developed characters: The producer, the agent and the starlet are stock types given substance only by the game cast. Grayson, given the play’s most sympathetic character in the supportive brother, comes off best.

As the screenwriter, Chandler does better handling the Richard Dreyfuss-style kvetching of act one than the grief and redemption of act two, but he gets little help from director Max Mayer. With the play crumbling, Mayer has the cast go for easy laughs with material that doesn’t support a snicker. Alan’s comic wailing upon being fired from “Stuttgart” might be funnier had his wife not been killed three days prior. And by a Nazi from East Hampton, no less.

Working Title

American Jewish Theater, New York; 150 seats; $ 30

Production: An American Jewish Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Andrew Bergman. Directed by Max Mayer.

Crew: Set, Peter Harrison; costumes, Laura Cunningham; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, Aural Fixation; production stage manager, Julie Hyman; casting, Walker/Jaffe Casting; press, Jeffrey Richards. Artistic director , Stanley Brechner. Opened March 19, 1996; reviewed March 18. Running time: 2 hours, 10 min.

With: Cast: Susan Blackwell (Laura Teichman), David Chandler (Alan Teichman), Jerry Grayson (Bobby Teichman), Stephen O'Reilly (Donnie DiNardo), John Seitz (Harry Crane), Gia Carides(Marie Oldam), Douglas Weston (Sandy Littweiler).

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