Reality unchecked: Hollywood's tales within tales animate Phoenix Theatre's new show, "Clark Gable Slept Here"

Just as Oscar Wilde described "The Importance of Being Earnest" as "a serious play for trivial people"* Michael McKeever's "Clark Gable Slept Here" might be said to be a heartless play for people with heart.

The heartlessness is amusing, but we are clearly intended to root for values nearly everybody once thought of as enduring. The play's main trouble (it struck me at Thursday's performance at the Phoenix Theatre)  is to plead with us that it has a heart, while the bent of the story line and most of the humor declare otherwise.

The Art Deco sun also rises, casting light on Hollywood shadows.
"Clark Gable Slept Here" cajoles us into clinging to the sort of moral standard Hollywood's movies used to foster, despite the unreliability of what anyone might say. The milieu that has generated those standards for a century tends to regard any hard fact as a mere plot device and any story only as solid as its effectiveness, not its truth.

We are in modern Hollywood, with careers on the line with every contract, every hook-up and every party. An action star, Patrick Zane, has been frolicking in a posh hotel suite with a hired boyfriend, tearing himself away just in time to attend the Golden Globes, where he is up for an award. We never see this icon, whose career has been sculpted to represent heterosexual manliness. Both the audience and the five characters are trapped in the bedroom of an Art Deco penthouse. The opening scene shows us its centerpiece — a rumpled round bed with the naked prostitute, prone and apparently dead, at its foot.
Sheet happens: Hilly, Morgan and Gage ponder body on the floor.

A plausible scenario must be devised. The wit of Zane's steely yet distraught manager, Jarrod "Hilly" Hillard, is too corroded with cynicism and coarsened by hard work to function properly. So he calls away from the Globes gathering a glamorous, hard-boiled fixer named Morgan Wright, who is none too happy to have been interrupted mid-schmooze.

The humorist S. J. Perelman once described how scenario writers are sacrificed in Hollywood like this: "They are tied between the tails of two spirited Caucasian ponies, which are then driven off in opposite directions. This custom is called 'a conference.'"

The forced conference of Hillard and Morgan Wright is complicated by an untrustworthy chambermaid and, surprisingly, by the male hooker. In devising their real-life scenario, they have to keep those Caucasian ponies of fate at bay, calmed with lumps of sugar and a touch of the whip.  Luckily they get an unexpected boost when they tune in to Zane's acceptance speech. But that only raises another problem that can't be revealed here. The common thread is that in Tinseltown no handhold on the real world can be sustained without a gift for fantasy and deception.

No wonder our sympathies are riveted on the hotel manager, Gage Holland, played with nuance by Joshua Coomer. How fortunate that his portrayal avoids the obvious nervous-nellie cliches of a good, dutiful man trapped by sordid circumstance! Gage is just trying to do his job, though he's undermined by awareness that his hotel's sterling reputation requires constant polishing — and always has, dating back to when Clark Gable may have slept there.

The manager is up against the formidable Morgan, stunning and implacable in Jen Johansen's fierce, steady performance, and the more battle-weary, but still manipulative, Hilly, treated almost professorially (that wagging forefinger!) by Charles Goad. It's a characterization that works well, because Hilly has lessons to impart in the midst of the desperate measures he resorts to.

The naivete that turns into steely self-interest in Travis, the call boy, was managed well by Tyler Ostrander. Maria Diaz was intense and, it turns out, properly hammy as the hotel maid.

Jim Ream's set design glories in the crazy angles and curves and the glowing pastels of Art Deco imagery. It conveys the colorful neatness of the Hollywood facade and the woozy menace of what lies behind it.

At the end, the prerecorded performance of "Hooray for Hollywood" by Tim Brickley is aptly knowing, doleful and gently ironic. It confirms the tone of Bryan Fonseca's direction, which faithfully presents a play that wants to be on the side of the angels, but gets all its nourishment at the teat of the City of Angels.

*and also with the modifiers transposed — humorous paradox was meat and drink to him


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