If you’ve ever watched a movie being filmed, you know that the process is marked by endless repetition and a snail’s pace. Playwright Bess Wohl conveys that experience all too accurately in her new dark comedy depicting the shooting of a Hollywood eco-thriller. Mixing tired satirical japes with dire warnings about climate change, Continuity, receiving its world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club, would have benefited from being truer to its title.
You practically feel a chill upon entering the theater when you encounter a large ice floe, accompanied by snow falling and the sound of howling winds. But in true theatrical, or in this case Hollywood, fashion, it’s all an illusion (courtesy of scenic designer Adam Rigg and sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman). It’s merely the set of a movie being filmed — purely for financial, if not practical, reasons — in the blazingly hot New Mexico desert. The film’s plot involves an ecoterrorist threatening to set off a massive explosion that would bring on a devastating tsunami. The nefarious plan is thwarted by an intrepid ecologist, but not before the villain murders a young scientist.
At least that’s the scene we witness being filmed over and over. Hunky, frequently bare-chested actor Jake (Alex Hurt) plays the evil terrorist; British actress and recent RADA graduate Lily (Jasmine Batchelor) plays the doomed scientist; and Nicole (Megan Ketch), a movie star with a coke habit, plays the heroine. They’re being directed by Maria (Rosal Colón), who’s anxious about making her first studio movie, while the other figures involved include the film’s veteran screenwriter, David (Darren Goldstein), and a hard-working PA (the single-named Garcia).
The playwright doesn’t stray too far from stereotype with most of these characters. Jake has more brawn than brains and is mainly concerned with his goal of becoming an action movie star. The classically trained Lily, who has to patiently explain to Jake that she can’t be described as African American because she’s British, becomes aggravated by the director’s repeated instruction that she “do less.” And the self-absorbed Nicole is constantly making diva-like demands that threaten both the shooting schedule and the film’s continuity.
Numerous subplots are woven into the proceedings, including revelations about a previous relationship between the director and screenwriter, a secret affair between two of the principals, and a key character announcing a terminal diagnosis. But the major one involves Larry (Max Baker), the movie’s 60-something science consultant, who keeps walking onto the set and decrying the project’s many inaccuracies.
None of it makes much of an impact, and the running gags, including one in which the hapless PA is continually forced to replace a fake rock because people keep making the mistake of sitting on it, quickly wear out their welcome. As if to infuse the farcical proceedings with a gravity they don’t deserve, Wohl has Larry deliver a climactic speech warning about the calamitous effects of climate change on the planet if significant action isn’t taken quickly. Both the character and the monologue seem to have wandered in from another play entirely.
Wohl, who displayed a keen insight into the absurdities of human behavior with her acclaimed off-Broadway hit Small Mouth Sounds, and will make her Broadway debut later this year with Grand Horizons, rarely rises above the level of cliché with this disappointing effort. Director Rachel Chavkin, who has demonstrated her tremendous talent with such productions as the musicals Hadestown and Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, fails to enliven the tired material, and the actors mainly seem as adrift as the characters they’re portraying.
Climate change is a deadly serious topic, but that doesn’t mean that a smart comedy can’t be made about it. Continuity, unfortunately, isn’t it.
Venue: New York City Center Stage II, New York
Cast: Max Baker, Jasmine Batchelor, Rosal Colón, Curran Connor, Garcia, Darren Goldstein, Alex Hurt, Megan Ketch
Playwright: Bess Wohl
Director: Rachel Chavkin
Set designer: Adam Rigg
Costume designer: Brenda Abbandandolo
Lighting designer Isabella Byrd
Sound designer: Mikaal Sulaiman
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club