Apparently, it's hard for Arthur Kopit to not be bitter. After scoring substantive hits on Broadway in the '60s with such farces as Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad and The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis, he got involved in movies.
Film changes people, we hear. Goodness and light, we read in the papers, are far too easily traded for other commodities in California, that fabled land where the sun turns the skin--and the conscience--to hardened bronze. Why, if Kenneth Anger's to be trusted, it's a veritable Babylon.
Particularly when compared with the convent that is theater, and its Vatican on the Great White Way.
Kopit's play The Road to Nirvana bears the marks--and the all but total lack in subtleties--of one who's been there. In its opening act Al and Lou, a sleazy tag-team of independent producers, double up on one of their own: Jerry, a former colleague who's already been spit up and chewed out once by the industry. Jerry's strictly into the clean stuff these days we learn, and if he isn't miserable because of it, the important thing is he can be talked into believing he is: producing educational films, making squat, not having fun.
As might have been guessed, Lou and Al have a plan to change all that. But it's going to take a token--a symbol of commitment--from Jerry to get him in the deal.
Actually, make that several symbols. And each is exponentially more costly than the preceding one.
By the end of act one, the man has slit his wrists and partaken of human excrement--as subtle a metaphor as we ever get in this piece for what the entertainment industry demands of its participants as well as its consumers.
Please bear in mind that, at that point, Kopit still has one more act to go, and a decidedly devilish bargain is still a long way from being consummated.
We'd gotten away from Ghost and Spice's Sunday night series at the ArtsCenter a while back, after a recital of Joanna Murray-Smith's unfortunate soap opera, Honour, failed to capitalize on the talents of all concerned. But word of new blood and prospects brought us back, apparently just in time.
Director Rachel Klem's martial attitude to Kopit's script is just what it needs to convey the take-no-prisoners mindset of its principal characters. While it's just a guess, Jeff Alguire probably has to take a very hot shower after each performance to get the layers of schmooze off which his character, Al, secretes. Fast-talking, working the angles, but always willing to stop on a dime for tortured rationalizations based on his actually non-existent principles, at points Alguire seems less to be acting than channeling his character.
As his very active partner in crime, Michelle Byars racks up points early as Lou the shrew, a psychopathically self-actualized Hollywood harpy of the first degree. Of Lou it seems fair to say that "survival of the fittest" is not just a scientific principle, but a religion. Matthew Bennett meanwhile brings a necktie-tugging desperation to Jerry, the hapless former friend who falls into their claws. Flynt Burton's later work in act two suggests the worst aspects of Stevie Nicks and Britney Spears all rolled into one.
Consider that potent combination, if you will.
Under Klem's direction, this ensemble makes The Road to Nirvana the theatrical equivalent of a slo-mo car-crash. You know no good can possibly come of it, but you somehow can't look away. Throughout, Lou and Al play Jerry like a Stradivarius, thoroughly skewering him on the prongs of desire. After he ultimately embraces the infinite downward spiral, the ride accelerates to a gratifying pitch.
If the final sacrifice required of Jerry only provides the punchline to the oldest Hollywood joke in the books, the superior acting here by all makes the playwright's overt underlining bearable. Anytime four actors have this much fun on stage, it's good to be in the same room with them.