Scripter-helmer Roger Kumble (“Cruel Intentions,” “The Sweetest Thing”) takes great delight in gnawing on the hand that feeds him. His latest legit effort completes his trilogy of Hollywood tales (“Pay or Play,” “D-Girl”), chronicling the sordid life and times of bottom-feeding writer-director Jeff Pelzman. “Friends” regular David Schwimmer, who portrayed Jeff in 1997’s “D-Girl,” once again oozes into the persona of the monumentally self-involved showbiz leech who is quite willing to obliterate his own soul and those of his best friends to salvage his dead end career. This time out, a little less would have been more. Though he has wrought a finely crafted, often hilarious glimpse into the subterranean machinations of Jeff and company, Kumble could strengthen his premise with some judicious editing, especially in the overstated second act.
Blessed with an excellent ensemble that simply wallows in Kumble’s unsavory folk, the first act focuses on the substance abuse tribulations of writer wannabe Gary (Tom Everett Scott). Though he has actually managed to turn out a screenplay, Gary is totally helpless in dealing with the everyday requirements of life.
Gathered at Gary’s Hollywood Hills pad, his lifelong friends Jeff and Richie (Jonathan Silverman) swirl about him in comically cruel rounds of one-upmanship. Jeff’s latest film has just tanked; producer Richie has five “go” projects in the works.
Kumble impressively guides the interaction among the three. It is easy to believe these mid-30s juveniles have known each other for 15 years, needing each other for mutual support but always cognizant of who’s ahead in their ravenous quest for success and affirmation.
Scott exudes the terror-filled bravado of a life-ravaged loser whose nerve ends have become completely exposed. Schwimmer captures perfectly the deceptively low-keyed persona of Jeff, who cannot help but seethe at the strutting, forever name-dropping antics of Richie (played with gleeful abandon by Silverman), whom he considers his intellectual and aesthetic inferior.
Integrated within the Gary/Jeff/Richie machinations is their hilarious encounter with Gary’s hooker-for-the-night Sahara, played with a captivating blend of sensuality and intelligence by Jaime Ray Newman. She reduces all of them to the children they really are. Also effective is the understated portrayal of John DiMaggio as intervention facilitator Seth, who just may be Gary’s last hope for survival.
Two months later, on the day a tenuously clean-and-sober Gary returns to his abode from a rehab facility, the second act shifts the focus to Jeff, who is on the verge of spinning Gary’s screenplay into gold. The only thing standing in his way is a thoroughly transformed Gary, a less than supportive Richie and Seth, who has the temerity to be thinking only about Gary’s wellbeing. Schwimmer’s Jeff is awe-inspiring in his laser-like need to win, no matter what gets sacrificed in the process.
Kumble makes his point with savage clarity but seems so enamored with the action, he pummels the premise to excess. End result is more relief that the bombardment has stopped than a true resolution.
The play is blessed with first-rate production designs, especially Greg Grande’s sumptuous bachelor digs, highlighted by a spectacular view of the Hollywood sign. The lights and sounds of Christie Wright and Eric Pargac, respectively, perfectly underscore the action. And the costumes of Julie Heath do much to reinforce the individual personalities of the ensemble, particularly Schwimmer’s ominously upscale second-act black attire.