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South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, Costa Mesa, Calif.
Through May 13
The world premiere of David Wiener’s powerful play about the deeply personal whirl of machinations at a Hollywood studio, presented as part of South Coast Repertory’s 10th annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, should be required viewing for industry types and other voyeurs curious to see the exposed guts of their business.
It’s the familiar story of a desperate attempt by an Oscar winner, Jerry Wolf (Robert Desiderio), to keep a faltering project on track. His wife, Evelyn (Shannon Cochran), is a gracefully aging former star bravely confronting her future. His new assistant, Aaron (John Sloan), is armed with talent, almost unbearable youth and a heartless mandate from the top brass.
Although the story is familiar, Wiener’s unabashed love for words, and for the writers in the story, is not. He uses them with such efficiency that the play runs its two hours with only an occasional flat spot. Now and then, Wiener uses the poetry of Mamet-like repetition (as in James Mason’s prepping of his client in “The Verdict”), but he never falls into the convenience of becoming stylized. Instead, he remains focused on deconstructing the three characters in order to find their humanity before their lives diverge.
Although “System Wonderland” is a sad tragedy, there are definite aspects of comedy. The characters themselves, because of the intensity of their various issues, cannot afford to have much of a sense of humor, but they occasionally say funny things, cynical S.J. Perelman non sequiturs and amusing references to Hollywood milestones and stars, including “the night Dennis invented cocaine,” recalling a party from when the Wolfs were young, but clearly recalling the movie “Gigi.”
The acting is flat-out superb, each of the trio capturing the magic and fire of the connections they make when their self-interest, love and knowledge intersect with their desire. Cochran, who is adorable or sexy as she needs to be, reflects the reality of a career that is over and that no amount of determination can overcome by finding refuge in being lost and dispossessed.
Desiderio rages powerfully and impotently against the system’s careless brutality, flashing charm and eloquently articulating his passion for art when it is least expected. At the end, he shields his wife with the warmth of resignation and love that is too quickly lost in the closing curtain.
Given the most stereotypical of the roles, Sloan adds significant dimensionality to Aaron’s transformation from knowing innocent to callous player by investing his performance with the ambiguity of maturity as well as the vulnerability of love.
At times, the action onstage is so seamlessly smooth and utterly natural that it is hard to believe that a live theatrical performance is taking place. It is, ironically, more like the movies it pillories in its faultless execution and in its ability to draw the audience to each character’s development as if there were a camera moving about the stage, zooming in for close-ups and creating miracles of perspective and depth.
The onstage action takes place on the play’s single set, the living room of the Wolfs’ beach house, with the coastline seen through a picture window. It’s a beautiful, expansive set, combining the comforts of Ethan Allen furniture with the relics (a portable typewriter and an old film projector) of a time when the Wolfs were young and their creativity flowed freely, like wine.
Presented by South Coast Repertory
Playwright: David Wiener
Director: David Emmes
Set/costume designer: Myung Hee Cho
Lighting designer: Lap-Chi Chu
Sound designer: Tom Cavnar
Fight director: Martin Noyes
Dramaturg: John Glore
Production manager: David Leavenworth
Stage manager: Erin Nelson
Jerry: Robert Desiderio
Evelyn: Shannon Cochran
Aaron: John Sloan
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