Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood, Barret O'Brien's elegant and moving new play, begins with a film clip -- one of those Academy Award teasers that accompany the announcement of a nominee. Love is the name of the movie. We see a dying soldier, on a battlefield, handing a buddy a final letter to be delivered to the girl back home. The scene is corny. We laugh. Lights come up onstage and we are in the bedroom of two movie stars, a married couple who are getting dressed before attending the Oscar ceremonies. Because of the film clip and, also I suppose, because we have come to relish O'Brien's sense of humor in previous outings, such as Midnight in the Marigny and The Stand-Ins, we expect to keep on laughing. And, in fact, there are some marvelous comic touches in what follows. For instance, the husband, Alexander -- confident he will win Best Actor -- wants to rehearse his acceptance speech. He needs the help of his wife, Samantha, whose job it is to add the "laughs," so that he can time the speech. This she does, while applying her makeup, with a dry "laughter, two, three" in the appropriate places. However, when Alexander urges her to rehearse her own acceptance, she refuses. First of all, she is sure she will lose (and to make matters worse, this loss will come at the hands of Alexander's youthful co-star). Secondly, she would rather just speak from the heart. Of course, there is a subtle one-upmanship in the moral purity of this approach. And one-upmanship, both subtle and not so subtle, seems to be stirring under the surface of this show-biz marriage. The joke is that later, when Alexander steps out of the room, Samantha does practice her "heartfelt" acceptance speech. It's just that she practices in secret.
Act Two takes place in the same bedroom. Now the couple is returning from the Academy Awards. In a truly remarkable scene -- built in part on our misunderstanding of what has transpired in the interim -- this glamorous pair struggle against their particular version of the eternal pressures that want to explode all marriages. A title like Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood prepares us for celebrity, not universality. But playwright/director O'Brien somehow manages to give us both. This husband and wife -- though remaining glitterati of the first magnitude -- also pull us into their personal griefs, resentments, failures and aspirations.
Flawless performances by Karl Lengel and the lovely Ashley Nolan put this fascinating drama (soon to be published in Smith and Krauss' The Best Plays of 2003) at the top of the "don't miss" list.
Running in repertory with Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood, as the featured productions in Southern Rep's New Play Festival, is Jim Fitzmorris' The Visitation. Fitzmorris -- who grew up as a member of the political clan that produced the renowned Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris -- has been treating local audiences to inside glimpses of the powers-that-be over the last several years. The Visitation is, in fact, the final installment of a quartet of plays about Louisiana politics. While the previous plays in the series are noteworthy for their hard-edged, cold-eyed, somewhat cynical take on the electoral process, The Visitation strikes a softer, more elegiac note. It is a backward glance at the dynasty's idealistic beginnings. Three buddies return from the Korean War and go into law practice together. Almost on a lark, they decide to take on the system -- though they seem to have an amazingly sophisticated sense of how it all works right from the jump. Woven into the political shenanigans are several sub-plots: one concerns a marriage that grows into a true partnership; the other, a maid who is falsely accused of theft.
The play unfolds in a well-crafted presentational style. The characters often give us background that links the scenes in straightforward storytelling narratives. There are also ghost stories, told to kids on Halloween by each of the three buddies. These are amusing, and meant to shed light on the characters and their situations -- though, by the third one, we have perhaps gotten our fill.
Under J. Daniel Stanley's direction, Gavin Mahlie, Robert Pavlovich, Dane Rhodes, Amy Alvarez and Karen Kaia Livers turn in convincing performances. Playwright Fitzmorris, in this amusing, nostalgia-tinged prequel, shows us the lighter, human side of political skullduggery. God knows we can use it.
- And the winner is: Karl Lengel and Ashley Nolan play a dangerous game of one-upsmanship in Barret O'Brien's impressive new work, Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood, at Southern Rep's New Plays Festival.