Vastly different aspects of show business are explored in two comedic plays that recently opened in Tucson.
Jane Martin's Somebody/Nobody, the world premiere of which is being presented by Arizona Theatre Company, concerns a chronically overexposed Hollywood starlet who wants to escape the prying eyes of a tabloid-happy world. The other play, Live Theatre Workshop's Inspecting Carol, created by Daniel Sullivan and the Seattle Repertory Theatre, looks at the careening backstage life and economic struggles of a small community-theater company.
Although the differences between the two plays are more numerous than their similarities, both works might be described as madcap; both attempt to balance physical comedy with elements of social commentary; and both prominently feature jokes about toilet paper.
ATC's production of Somebody/Nobody is directed, as have been many of Martin's premieres, by Jon Jory, formerly the producing director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville and a frequent guest artist at ATC. (Jory is also rumored to be the true author of all the plays credited to the elusive Martin.) He opens this new work to the strains of Britney Spears singing "Piece of Me." That sets an appropriate tone for the show--amusingly trashy, self-obsessed and rather pitiful.
Wide-eyed Kansas transplant Loli (Jessica Martin, no relation to the playwright) lives humbly in a shoddy Hollywood apartment. The same morning that she loses her job as a truck mechanic, she finds on a doorstep the temporarily injured and perpetually young starlet Sheena (Alexandra Tavares), who is as bobble-headed as she is beautiful, in that vaguely B-list sort of way.
Loli provides shelter for Sheena, who at 22 wishes she could escape the confining attentions of Hollywood and her fans, though she remains trapped by her desire for all the perks. The two young women bond over flapjacks. The twist: Sheena has the fame and adoration that Loli wishes she could have. A few other folks--especially Loli's strapping survivalist cousin (Jeremy Stiles Holm) and Sheena's devious agent (Elizabeth Gilbert)--are drawn into the orbit of their growing friendship.
Tavares is especially funny as Sheena, whose attempt at adding sophistication to her Valley Girl accent simply makes her sound mentally unstable. The character can be hilarious as she juggles narcolepsy, OCD and narcissism.
However, there's a problem: The contradictory point of Somebody/Nobody is to indict Hollywood for its hollow cult of personality while embracing it. Neither Loli's nor Sheena's lines are consistent in tone. And the truly clever lines, while delivered by characters, sound as if they are actually statements being made by the playwright.
The play has been paced like a predictable sitcom (complete with a closing dream sequence that is completely out of place), and Jory directs it with the rhythms of a stale TV comedy. You half-expect to see three-camera setups and hear a canned laugh track.
In the spotlight over at Live Theatre Workshop, Inspecting Carol is a far- less ambitious production about a theater company in a Midwestern small town, though it features rich characterizations and believable crises--even if the humor is sometimes outrageous.
While preparing a truly blinkered annual production of A Christmas Carol, the Soapbox Playhouse faces a debilitating negative cash flow and the threat of losing its grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The company's director and business manager are busy coping with the idiosyncrasies of the questionable actors and their seeming inability to complete even one rehearsal--and then they discover that the NEA is sending an inspector to judge whether the funding stream should continue.
Of course, mistaken identities and cranky personalities cause chaotic confusion. The company's expectant waiting for the federal adjudicator has been loosely inspired by the events of Nikolai Gogol's classic The Government Inspector.
The statuesque Missie Scheffman is commanding and a little vulnerable as the beleaguered director, and the just-right Jodi Rankin clearly relishes playing the cynical stage manager. Toni Press-Coffman is essential as a haughty and matronly British actress, while Michael Woodson, as the company's leading man, combines his big-fish-in-small-pond mania with a supercilious sense of social consciousness.
It takes a lot of hard work to make a play within a play look this bad. Director Leslie J. Miller demonstrates a clear affection for slapstick, but also ably coordinates the verbal jousting among the cast. Most of the action takes place on the Soapbox Playhouse stage, though we are given brief glimpses of backstage life. Clearly, these characters crave life on the boards and are drawn to their rickety old stage at every moment, even when arguing about money.
Thoughtful touches abound. For instance, the Soapbox company members enter and exit most of the time through the threadbare sets of their Carol production (even when they are not performing), although they could simply walk around them. The inhabitants of Inspecting Carol are self-consciously, hilariously theatrical.