Saturday, March 4, 2017

Ready for their close-up: Hollywood characters search for status in 'The Money Shot'

It's not unlikely that Steve, the self-assured but deeply ignorant movie star in Neil LaBute's dark comedy "The Money Shot," might have to look up "Citizen Kane" on his iPhone. Despite his explicit admiration for Hollywood as a place steeped in history (unlike New York and London, he says), its historical background exists only to prop up his vanity.

After visiting the next-to-last performance of Theatre on the Square's excellent production Friday night, there flashed upon my mind the scene in Orson Welles' masterpiece when the aging, defeated Charles Foster Kane walks catatonically through the halls of his mansion Xanadu, past his large, stunned staff and into a narrow passage with facing mirrors on either side.

Karen (Sarah McGee) and Steve (Earl Campbell) ponder what their partners are up to.
Neil LaBute's characters, though not so well positioned in life as Welles' newspaper magnate, tend to be stalled between facing mirrors. That's where he likes them. The trick in fleshing out his plays (and I base this only on previous knowledge of the film "In the Company of Men" and the play "Fat Pig") is to stage them without locking them in so completely to the characters' endless reflectiveness that the action seems claustrophobic.

Lori Raffel's direction has the tightness and interlocking quality LaBute requires in this exploration of sex roles, status, stereotypes, and the greasy pole-climb of Hollywood careerism. But there is also breathing room and a genuine feeling for the larger world in how this production unfolds. This is true even though the first part of the play is chock full of rollicking satire on Tinseltown and the embedded cultural turmoil of negotiating a balance among personal branding, authenticity, and happiness.

"Citizen Kane" is arguably the Great American Movie, but it is also the most manipulative film of quality ever made. My preference for theater over movies has a lot to do with resistance to being toyed with, even vicariously. A German philosopher once mused that never going to the theater is like getting ready to go out in the world every morning without using a mirror. Theater is that mirror, however unlike the figures onstage we imagine ourselves to be. Even characters caught between facing mirrors have something to tell us about ourselves.

That's why "The Money Shot" works so well, particularly under LaBute's withering scrutiny — but also because of the sensitivity, insight, and energy of Raffel and her cast. Earl Campbell is Steve, probably a B-list actor (though who keeps track of these things reliably?) with a lot of personal baggage he thrusts forth into conversation as if he's always presenting his C.V. He's visiting the home that his co-star in a film under production shares with her partner/girlfriend (the distinction itself is a matter of contention) Bev, a film editor and versatile member of the crew community.

Sarah McGee brings to the role of Karen a fluttering anxiety that often takes the form of fragile glamour-shot posing. Seesawing between establishing herself as a film actress and as a restaurateur and celebrity chef, Karen hopes that if she can keep fingers in enough trendy pies she will prove her devotion to the bitch-goddess Success and be rewarded for it. Bev is more grounded, sure of herself sexually, professionally and intellectually in a manner that gives her the upper hand over both Karen and Steve. Yet, in Lisa Marie Smith's riveting performance, she is also hypersensitive to slights and primed to retaliate.

Bev looks in both directions at those facing mirrors with few qualms; she's used to quelling anxiety about the ambiguity that hangs like smog over L.A. She stands in contrast to Missy, Steve's foxy young wife, played with a nicely regulated ditsiness by Lauren Hall. Her devotion to Steve turns out to have its limits.

But then, everyone is being severely tested because the reason for this awkward social occasion is business-based: The director of the film Steve and Karen are in has a notion that an explicit sex scene will be both a marketing and an artistic breakthrough. Art is long, foreplay short. Sensitivity, Hollywood-style, thus has to take the form of talking the proposal through with their respective partners.

All  the vulnerabilities exposed in barbs and witticisms early in this one-act scorcher are fuses set alight in the play's latter half. When it isn't just gross, it's engrossing. The production team has supported the cast marvelously well on TOTS' intimate Stage Two. "The Money Shot" won't encourage you to hum "Hooray for Hollywood" to yourself on the way out, but the actual exit music, a belting Grace Slick singing "Somebody to Love," has the perfect, mordant suitability.

[Photo by Zach Rosing]