There's a famous scene in the Robert Altman film The Player in which a group of self-infatuated movie producers are enjoying a lavish lunch. Between calorie-counting bites and frequent sips of wine, they talk animatedly about the topical intrigues of their industry until producer Griffin Mill, who's got issues, challenges his colleagues to change the subject. Naturally, they can't. After an awkward pause, the group retreats to the familiar terrain of Hollywood chatter.
The characters who populate John Guare's Rich and Famous, now through February 8, 2009 at A.C.T., are similarly obsessed by their chosen milieu, except they are even more shallow than Mill's lunchmates. Lacking the talent and brains that might have enabled them to converse about their industry as knowingly as Altman's players, Guare's creations are focused entirely, pathetically, on their narcissistic, infantile dreams of fame and fortune.
They work hard at their folly. Guare's protagonist, a playwright named Bing Ringling (Brooks Ashmanskas), cranks out 843 scripts before a masterwork of pretense called Etruscan Conundrum is picked up by the wildly successful producer Veronica Gulpp-Vestige (Mary Birdsong). Veronica has reaped the rewards of hit after vapid hit but she's never had a comeback, so she resolves to produce a string of flops with Bing so that she may eventually stage for herself "the greatest comeback since Easter." Like Bing, she's prepared to go to a good deal of trouble to achieve failure.
Then there's the insufficiently revered composer Anatol Torah (Stephen DeRosa), who has been minting money his entire career by cranking out meager variations of the same predictable melody. So severe are the pressures of genius on the addled cranium of poor, sensitive Anatol that he routinely flees his pink bedroom-cum-music studio for a quick trip to Hamburg, where he visits a lethal Fight Club to pay for the privilege of strangling a fellow human being to death with piano wire. "It's delectable," he purrs.
Okay. The desire to be rich and famous clouds the mind, causes us to do insane, unforgivable things and corrupts everything it touches. Got it. And the string of events that litter Rich and Famous are obviously surreal, so it would be a mistake to take the particulars of the plot too literally.
But what, other than an absurdist take on base desires, is this play really about? In a work of cultural commentary like The Player, the struggle for fame and fortune is the air the film's characters breath, but ultimately it's just the air. That's probably why Guare's play feels like such light fare; it's all about the surface rather than the substance of its characters lives. At best it's a sophomoric, autobiographical indulgence that would likely not have been taken seriously in the first place were it not for the fact that the author was coming off a hit, The House of Blue Leaves, when Rich and Famous opened in New York in 1976. If Guare had been deliberately testing the edges of his newfound success by presenting the world with a play that's as pompous and inconsequential as Bing's ill-advised Etruscan Conundrum, just to see if it would get produced, then maybe we could admire the playwright's perversity. But you get the feeling that Guare honestly thought (indeed, still believes) that Rich and Famous is deserving of our time and attention for the lessons and insights it offers grateful audiences. Please.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Rich and Famous is a handsome, occasionally witty mess. Which makes this production's mostly strong performances all the more remarkable. Ashmanskas holds things together admirably as Bing. I liked his simultaneous displays of steely determination and fear, his sense of personal integrity fighting with a hair-trigger willingness to sell out, his sincerity and schmaltz. Birdsong has numerous scene-stealing moments. She's especially good as Leanara, the out-of-her-depth actress in Etruscan Conundrum who lands a TV role in Hollywood despite forgetting most of Bing's painstakingly crafted dialogue on opening night. And she's flat-out hilarious as Bing's mom, who is so manically obsessed with her precious little boy that she's bronzed her son's soiled diapers and saved his bath water in Mason jars.
Gregory Wallace is also good as the hapless Aphro; watching Bing struggle to keep a brave face while, off stage, Aphro's ham-fisted delivery is undermining the play's key monologue is great fun. Our eyes are on Ashmanskas, but if Wallace was not doing such an expert job of mangling the monologue, Ashmanskas would have nothing for Bing to react to. The only weak link in the small cast is Stephen DeRosa, who elbows his way through his scenes as Anatol Torah and Bing's dad. These are impressive performances for the sheer volumes of energy that DeRosa brings to the parts, but the unrestrained bluster and bravado push the characters from deliberately absurd to merely annoying, which just so happens to describe Rich and Famous.
Rich and Famous runs through February 8, 2009 at the Geary Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information,visit act-sf.org.