The backstory on this self-styled “modern morality tale” is as catchy as the subversive comedy onstage — and goes a long way to explaining how a Hollywood glam girl like Ione Skye (“River’s Edge,” “Gas Food Lodging”) wound up playing a modest role in an Off Off Broadway show at an East Village theater. Urban Empire hooked Skye and the rest of the play’s young creative team with its short but flashy track record of developing hip work like “Worldly Acts,” based on stories from Francis Ford Coppola’s literary mag Zoetrope All Story and seen in New York and L.A.
Jonathan Marc Sherman (“Women and Wallace,” “Sophistry”) is just the kind of articulate and generationally savvy playwright on which upstart companies like Urban Empire rely. His ironic humor and pop culture mindset appeal to a youthful audience that thinks it knows it all, while the educated wit of his satirical style assures an older generation that he’s not just talking to wiseass college kids. Although the topic of his play is the very definition of trite — a naive young man’s Candide-like quest for purpose and direction in a world that values nothing but fame and fortune — Sherman sends up this familiar material with irreverent originality.
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The spineless posture and blank expression adopted by Josh Hamilton for his winning portrayal of this woolly headed lamb are telltale clues to the existential dilemma of Henry Tollman, a 22-year-old Harvard student supposedly hard at work on his thesis on Darwinian evolution. Tipped off by an omniscient Storyteller (a world-weary pedant in Larry Block’s droll performance), we learn this young scholar is such a purist he intends to write his opus without using words with the letter “e.”
But under the interrogation of his faculty adviser — “What do you want? From school, from life, from me, from yourself. What’s something you really want?” — Henry confesses that all he really wants is to know what he really wants. Although we’ve heard this schoolboy lament in a million coming-of-age plays, Sherman’s mock-heroic version has a decidedly fresh feel to it.
Time flies in Lizzie Gottlieb’s fluid production, which uses multiple video screens, Brechtian scene titles and pop-art projections to keep this mythic quest moving through an Alice in Wonderland landscape of bizarre characters in surreal settings. Whisked off to Los Angeles over spring break by his take-charge girlfriend, Hope Braverman (played by Keira Naughton with the lusty spirit of a baby Brunnhilde), Henry is exposed to all the cool, corrupting social influences — cartoons, phone sex, designer drugs, direct sunlight — from which Harvard had insulated him.
But instead of being struck dumb from culture shock, Henry becomes a true Darwinian, talking the lingo of the locals, embracing their pantheon of gods, adapting to their tribal customs. Under the cynical guidance of Hope’s kid brother (Armando Riesco, in the kind of bravura performance that leads to guest shots on network series), Henry dreams up a TV series, “Adam and Eve,” that wins him fame, fortune and the delectable Skye.
Will Henry lose his Hope — not to mention his intellectual faith and cultural chastity? Will he win his Emmy at the price of his immortal soul? Will he ever finish his damned thesis? Although Sherman has some amusing thoughts on these and other burning questions, he doesn’t really know how to resolve his play, which stops at the crucial point when Henry has to live with the Darwinian choices he’s made. If not a second act, then a sequel seems in order.