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The self-delusion and insecurity of egomaniacal actors, the terror of the celebrity expiration date and the toxicity of Hollywood have been nailed onscreen this year — with blunt savagery in David Cronenberg‘s Maps to the Stars and with jazzy, Kafkaesque playfulness in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s sublime Birdman. Neil LaBute gets in on the act, taking his digs at the vapid bubble of entertainment-industry culture in The Money Shot. While it’s thin and formulaic and adds little that’s new to the playwright’s customarily dyspeptic commentary on sexual politics, this satirical comedy is at the very least LaBute’s funniest work in years.
That’s largely because the play’s two exemplars of preening Hollywood vanity are such delicious stereotypes, each one a monument to overindulged A-list entitlement. The reasons LaBute’s writing is so attractive to actors are evident in all four roles here.
Frequent LaBute collaborator Fred Weller channels wiry physicality and barely concealed aggression into Steve, a smug, handsome moron with great abs, who bought a buffalo ranch in Montana with residuals from his Pain Merchant action franchise. His mellow veneer dissolves whenever anyone questions his intelligence — and there’s no lack of opportunity — or rounds up his age from 48 to 50. Steve’s go-to whenever in doubt is Answers.com.
Elizabeth Reaser, who stepped in after Heather Graham dropped out early in rehearsals, is Karen, a hilariously self-absorbed siren whose entire frame of reference is her movie output, lifestyle website, endorsement deals, charity foundation and outreach programs. The shallowness of her involvement in all of the above is apparent at every turn. “Sharks are very misunderstood,” she opines at one point with serene authority. “I did a voiceover once, for this Greenpeace documentary… and they really are majestic creatures. Majestic.” Always acting, or striking a pose, Karen responds to the heightened friction late in the play by hurling herself on the floor and shrieking, “No more drama!” But hers is very much a Joan Crawford notion of dialing it down; her disconnect from ordinary people’s reality is absolute.
Struggling to keep a lid on their anxiety, Steve and Karen are both slipping down the Hollywood food chain and need a hit to thrust them back into the conversation. They see salvation in Jackhammer, a steamy drama by an arrogant, Palme d’Or-winning Belgian provocateur identified only as Christof. The catch is that he wants raw sex scenes with no body-double fakery, so the actors have convened to discuss with their respective partners how far they are willing to go.
It doesn’t require the passing reference to Lars von Trier to make the connection to Nymphomaniac. And there are some droll nods to auteurist affectation. “I think he gets away with a lot of shit being whatever he is,” says Karen of the unseen Christof. “European, I guess. An ‘artist.’ ” But while the intimate dilemma of whether or not to simulate might have been a novel scenario, LaBute is less interested in that than he is in the shifting dynamics of power within relationships, and in familiar territory concerning the incendiary effects of sexism, homophobia and misogyny on social situations.
The setup has Steve and his 24-year-old dim-bulb wife Missy (Gia Crovatin), an aspiring actress, having pre-dinner cocktails and canapes on the patio of the Hollywood Hills home Karen shares with her lesbian partner, Bev (Callie Thorne), who works in postproduction. But it’s well into the 100-minute one-act play before the subject that brought them together is broached. Even then, it soon retreats to make way for more general verbal, and eventually physical, animosity between the principal adversaries, Steve and Bev.
There’s plenty to question in terms of Bev’s inconsistency as a character. She’s clearly the smartest, most evolved person in the room. But her career path from a Todd Haynes movie to Michael Bay seems unlikely, and clearly only exists to allow for one of LaBute’s more facile Hollywood jabs. “Super-talented,” says Steve of Bay. “I love his shit.” What’s more problematic is that there’s no credible basis for Bev’s relationship with a manipulative phony like Karen. The latter’s condescending delineation of the hierarchy separating “the talent” from everybody else on the crew extends to their home life. But Thorne is so terrific — bristling with frustration as she tries and fails to stifle the urge to correct Steve on his every idiotic statement — that it’s easy enough just to let the improbabilities slide.
The production’s other secret weapon is the delightful Crovatin. Treated with patronizing ownership by Steve, Missy seems destined for the least subtle swipes here, notably with her dietary concerns and her silly re-enactment of a cheerleader routine from an Idaho high-school staging of The Crucible. But LaBute provides her with an enjoyable table-turning taste of revenge after being “sacrificed,” throwing in lightweight allusions to Greek tragedy.
Terry Kinney, who directed the premiere of LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty, does a muscular job, keeping the pace snappy and coaxing detailed individual characterizations as well as sharp ensemble interplay from the talented cast. And Derek McLane‘s set is a sleek model of upscale California living: a spacious outdoor area that screams “relaxed elegance,” with a panoramic view framed by bamboo trees and dappled by light from the infinity pool and artificial fire.
This is far from the playwright’s most robust work, or even his most ferocious. But there’s undeniable pleasure in watching him strike unapologetically low blows at L.A. insularity, and a hint of sly self-parody as he lights Steve’s fuse for some classic woman-hating invective, surprisingly minus the C-word. Even when the dramaturgy grows shaky, which increasingly becomes the case as the booze flows and the quarrelsome turn of the evening takes hold, the jokes are hard to resist.
Cast: Gia Crovatin, Elizabeth Reaser, Callie Thorne, Fred Weller
Director: Terry Kinney
Playwright: Neil LaBute
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Sarah J. Holden
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Sound designers: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Choreographer: Peter Pucci
Presented by MCC Theater, by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation
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