Jon Robin Baitz’s heavily revised 1984 anti-Hollywood comedy “Mizlansky/Zilinsky or ‘Schmucks’ ” provides Nathan Lane with yet another in the actor’s ever-growing repertoire of showcase roles. Re-teaming Lane with director Joe Mantello on the stage of the Manhattan Theater Club, where they scored with “Love! Valour! Compassion!” several seasons back, “Mizlansky” also marks the director’s strongest work since then.
Baitz’s caustic, funny play about a pair of washed-up Hollywood producers walks the same ground as David Mamet’s “Speed the Plow,” yet Baitz, more than in his own previous (or later?) plays, goes straight for the laughs in “Mizlansky.” Mantello steers a steady course that hits the comedy while allowing the underlying drama to unfold.
Lane stars as Davis Mizlansky, a middle-aged Hollywood hustler who, along with partner Sam Zilinsky (Lewis J. Stadlen), has watched his fortunes rise and fall with the vogue for exploitation pics about bad acid trips and biker chicks. It’s now the early 1980s, and with his heyday and financial security long past, Mizlansky has forsaken the movie business in favor of a similarly risky scam that could be his last shot at the big bucks: He’s gone into the tax shelter business, offering wealthy Midwest investors the chance to sink some money into a project designed to fail — thus giving the investors a needed tax write-off — but one that will not fail so blatantly that the IRS could prove a scam.
The project: A series of children’s records retelling (very, very loosely) famous Bible stories. Among the titles are “The Last Supper” as told by Flip Wilson, and a New Testament renamed “Somethin’s Happenin’ in Jerusalem.”
With a multimillion-dollar deal pending, Mizlansky recruits a scriptwriter (Mark Blum) and once-famous TV actor (Paul Sand) to lend legitimacy to the shelter scam, the temptation of money proving hard to withstand for the idealistic duo whose careers have seen better days. A meeting is set up with a lawyer for the Midwest investors, a lawyer (Larry Pine) whose faux naivete can’t conceal his anti-Semitism (all the Hollywood players are Jewish) and cut-throat business acumen.
But the biggest threat to the deal is Mizlansky’s own partner, Zilinsky. Whether in the throes of a nervous breakdown or out of resentment for his longtime partner and nemesis, a suddenly conscience-stricken Zilinsky is threatening to work a deal with the IRS. Mizlansky convinces Zilinsky to hold off, see the Midwest scam through and flee the country with the new fortune. Everything — money, freedom, the future — rides on this one last hustle.
Set mostly in the lavish Los Angeles home that Mizlansky can no longer afford (nicely rendered by set designer Santo Loquasto), the comedy offers Lane the sort of role at which he excels: a loud, fast-talking con man who careens from exasperation and self-pity (he’s constantly accusing his much-abused assistant of betrayal) to anger and sheer panic. Needless to say, he’s hilarious at every turn.
But if Lane has the showiest role, the rest of the cast is no less effective in conveying the various guises of sleaze, from the bigotry of Pine’s lawyer to the hypocritical affectations of morality and class offered by Stadlen’s Zilinsky. Even the put-upon assistant (Glenn Fitzgerald) is a shark in the making.
Only the has-been actor, beautifully played by Sand, ultimately can’t be bought, and the deal-breaking scene in which he stands up to the scumbags is a winner (the deal might be over, but the play isn’t: Baitz has one twist left, a betrayal that few will see coming).
But as backstabbing as they are, Baitz’ characters (with one or two exceptions) are not written or played completely without affection. So desperate for work is the TV actor that he’s convinced himself playing an intergalactic space rodent on a cheesy sci-fi series could actually be socially significant. As the washed-up scriptwriter laments, these characters have been put onto the “remaindered table” of the Hollywood market. “They all look like they never sleep,” says a weary Mizlansky about the “kids” who run the new Hollywood. “They never have any fun.”
Mantello draws strong performances from the entire cast, and MTC has given Baitz’s play a solid physical production (in addition to Loquasto’s set, Ann Roth’s costumes and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting are right on target). “Mizlansky/Zilinsky or ‘Schmucks’ ” is a good deal all around.