The comic potential of a story concerning temperamental actresses in the world of TV seems rich, but the new production of Howard Michael Gould’s play “Diva” at the Pasadena Playhouse is a curiously poor offering. Gould would seem to have the experience to craft a play full of epic bitchiness and Hollywood insider humor, because he wrote for the legendarily troubled sitcom “Cybill,” but the piece is surprisingly toothless. A couple of vivid perfs and a second act that’s notably better than the first provide a moderate level of entertainment, but under the bland direction of David Lee the show is largely forgettable.
Deanna (Annie Potts), who stars in a TV sitcom of the same name, is throwing a fit on the set one day. She’s unhappy with the script and wants it rewritten to focus on her hair, which she firmly believes is what her public wants. She doesn’t like the fact that her co-star Ezra (Ian Lithgow) gets big laughs. Mainly, however, she wants to get writer-director Isaac (Todd Waring) fired, even though he created the show specifically to make her a star.
Isaac thinks it’s clear that she’s crazy, but when his agent Barry (Patrick Fabian) drops him and studio exec Kurt (Richard Kline) tells him his job is over, he can see he’s underestimated Deanna’s power.
Gould’s use of reverse chronology (a la “Betrayal”) is interesting, but his choice to cap the show with a patently unbelievable happy ending doesn’t work. He attempts to make most of the characters more than mere stereotypes, but when this is in service of a plot that makes Deanna not so much a diva as a basically good woman who just can’t help acting badly, the whole thing becomes as stale as week-old soda.
There are occasional witty lines (“Nice guys finish at UPN”), but the catty attitude promised by the title never materializes.
Potts is game and likable as Deanna, but she is undercut by the tameness of the writing. Waring captures the helpless anger of Isaac, but is stuck with a colorless role. Lithgow is amusing whenever he’s onstage, which unfortunately isn’t very often.
Fabian steals the show as the cheerfully selfish Barry, a guy so career-oriented he wants to have kids just so he can network at the right birthday parties. His energetic perf has the razor-sharp edge the rest of the play lacks.
Kline underplays Kurt just right, as a man who has seen this story play itself out before, and his deft comic timing adds needed panache to the production.