Sunday, October 27, 2013

It’s The Biz by Michael Grossman

By Joe Straw

“Sonny,” a tall strapping man with a square jaw and a big booming voice, looked liked Elvis if you squinted your eyes just the right way.  He was also a major motion picture action feature film player in the 1980’s.

I met Sonny working on a film in an adjacent bungalow.  Our bungalow had a bathroom in it. And Sonny, not immuned to liquid refreshments, was always in there. It also had a mirror – actors. One night, on his way out, he invited us over for a drink after we finished for the night.  

But, the moment we walked through the open door, I felt something was wrong.  Sonny sat at his desk with a dour look on his face and the scene suggested his party had started hours earlier.   

Sonny told us his partner, “Honest Ron”, had pulled out of his film – a heartwarming story of a country veterinarian. I had read it and, frankly, I couldn’t see Sonny, a pistol-whipping, knife carrying, killing machine, doing it. 

In any case, Sonny said Honest Ron got scared, packed his things, took what little money was left, and left town.

Sonny demanded we join him in some Jack Daniels.  I refused but my friend took a shot while Sonny lamented about his situation.  “If I find him I’m going to kill him,” he bellowed, “I’ll never work with that S.O.B. as long as I live.”

Sonny then picked up a baseball bat.  Where that came from I don’t remember.  But I said something like it’s not the end of the world. You’ve had a great career in amazing films. And as I said it, my mouth got dry from lack of conviction.   

Suddenly Sonny began to swing the bat and was smashing his productions stills sending shards of glass all over the room.

We quickly left, backing up as we headed for the door – frames, lamps, and broken glass flying in every direction. And as I closed the door, I could see Sonny through the window, his hair flying, as he was slamming the bat against Honest Ron’s desk.      

The next morning we found Sonny’s furniture out in the middle of the parking lot mostly in piles of ashes from a late night bonfire. Above me the telephone was wrapped around electrical wires.  

This Hollywood story has a happy ending. I caught up with Sonny a few months later. He had teamed up with Honest Ron for another go.

“Never say never in this bizness, Joe” he said as he barred his perfect teeth and bellowed a maniacal laugh.  - Narrator

It’s The Biz written by Michael Grossman, directed by Paul Fredrix, and producd by Patrice Barrie & Mike Abramson is playing at the Promenade Playhouse in Santa Monica. This play is about another Hollywood story with an agent’s assistant, his boss and the many people that step into their lives.

I went because Hollywood is always an appealing subject matter, and while not everything worked, something appealing happened in the second act, which I’ll get to later.

But first, our play begins in the morning at the office of Bryant and Associates.  (Don’t look for the associates; they are long gone, or maybe a figment of someone’s imagination.) 

The moment the new assistant, Marty (Paul Mischeshin), steps into the office, the phones start ringing and he is lost in his element. Marty is green, very green, but he is a writer, smart, and is willing to take messages for his boss, Wally (Kelly Gullett), an agent with measured skills.  

And on this particular Monday morning, the phone calls pour in. Ted (Jeff Sable), a writer, lies around in his housecoat with nothing to do but scratch multiple hairs on his chest, and the little that remain on his head.  He rattles the drink from his cranium, and laments how the writing assignment is not coming along.   Marty recognizes Ted’s name, his work, and says he wants to be a writer as well.  Ted appreciates the compliments and tells Marty not to ask for advice.

The next call is Frank (Hunter Smit), the star of Lesbian’s Best Man and other independent films.  Frank is in costume, and on the set, and appears to be speaking in character. He’s pleased that Wally has hired a male assistant and leaves a message for Wally to call him right away.   

Sid (Charles Anteby), with coat and tie, calls from a brokerage house (a million dollars away) and is a little annoyed that Wally is not available on this morning. He also leaves a message.  He has a very demanding boss (Brice Harris).

And as this develops, ex-girlfriend and filmmaker, Linda (Julie Shelton), enters the office. She has returned from a long hiatus away from Wally while she shot a documentary in the jungles of South America. She needs two things from Wally.

Next on the phone is Dee Dee (Dyan Kane), with her hair in curlers and snorting cocaine, demanding money from Wally, her former associate.

And, finally, Wally comes in to sort out the messages, return the calls, and get his financial life in order.  Sid is first on the list.  Sid implores him not to get restless and Wally assures him that he has money “coming out of his ears”, after his three hundred percent profit from the last month’s previous transaction.     

Wally then turns his attention to Linda again – hugging her and taking her out for lunch. He tells Marty to handle the two girls coming in to audition and to pick the best one.

Later Marty sees Jill (Rachel Amanda Bryant) who has very little experience – he politely sends her on her merry way but not before she says she’ll do nudity and flashes him.  Next Marty sees Mia (again Rachel Amanda Bryant), a likeable actress with a little more talent. Marty likes her and arranges to have her see Wally later.

Meanwhile at lunch, Linda confesses to Wally that she needs a place to stay and Wally is okay with that.

Wally comes back from lunch and meets Robin (Michael Sotkin), a wannabe singer/guitar player with a wealthy dad who is willing to finance Wally to get his son recognition. Wally arranges for studio musicians to rehearse and play with Robin at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood.

Not waiting for Wally to return his call, Frank, the movie star, barges in telling Wally that he was walked off the set because of problems with “Elizabeth”.

Ted, the writer, calls and says he can’t finish the script.  And then Dee Dee comes in with her goon, Mark (Brice Harris), who’s prepared to tear Wally’s head off and get her money which of course Wally doesn’t have it.

There is a lot going on in this play (almost three hours worth) and director Paul Morgan Fredrix has his hands full. Fortunately the play, despite all the turmoil, has a very good and uplifting ending. One note: no one uses the doorframe – it sticks out like a sore thumb – so either use it effectively or lose it. Also, try to limit the calls and have your cast of characters show up in whatever crazy wardrobe they are in. This will shore up the disconnect in the relationships.  Also the objectives need more creativity and fine-tuning.  

Paul Mischeshin is very likeable as Marty, the young kid who has everything under control but really doesn’t. During the opening moments of the show when everyone is coming to him, we never really get the “What have I gotten my self into with this new job?” If Marty wants to be a writer, then he should enter writing, and maintain it as an overall objective, then the conflict – everyone stopping him from what he loves to do – emerges.  As the character, Marty would do well with more of an emotional commitment to the role and identifying the conflicts that surround him. Mischeshin’s character needs a creative objective and a grander physical life.  Mischeshin is charming in the role but needs to relax, not push, find the core of the character and grow into the role.

Jeff Sable has a lot of good moments playing Ted.  Ted is always off somewhere getting into a lot of trouble.  He can’t finish the screenplay, he’s drinking, and is distracted by the mundane, probably his housecoat and getting out of bed. His objective was to move on to other things in his life, but he can’t because this is the only thing he knows so he’s dramatically torn. But once he figures out what he want to do when he grows up, there is a dramatic change, and Ted has a fantastic ending. This is something I really like to see in character development.  Sable has done a remarkable job and is outstanding in his craft.  

Hunter Smit plays Frank and I was a little confused with this character especially with the accent in the phone conversation.  Once Smit settled down, he had a fantastic ending. Smit also has a very good look and can go a lot of different ways and with strides, he could have a good career.

Charles Anteby plays Sid, a man desperate to make a mark on his job and it’s not looking too good.  His counterpart has gotten him into something from which he may not get out and this kind of mistake could cost him his job.  And everyone needs a job. But why be so glum?  Go out and make it happen, anyway you can, make it happen.  A stronger objective to hang onto his job would create a more dynamic character.   

Julie Shelton plays Linda, a documentary filmmaker, who left the foggy confines of Hollywood in search of real-life making real-film about real… (I’m not really sure.). She wants a distribution deal for her film but doesn’t try hard enough to get it. Things did not gel on this night but once Shelton gets comfortable, well it’ll be a new ballgame.

Dyan Kane as Deedee is funny. Try as she might she never gets what she wants. The character has lots going on but is her physical life in line with her objective? How much harder does she have to work in order to get her money?  I’d say a lot harder.

Kelly Gullett plays Wally, an agent who is not frazzled in the least about anything.   Everything is under control. I’m not sure this makes for good drama, conflict, and resolution.  Certainly there is more to this character. Money, not an issue at first, has to be an issue in the end. Also, his costume looked modern day for the 1983 time period.  Still Gullett has a good look and is very likable.  In the end of this play he shows he has a lot of heart for clients and that he is willing to sacrifice everything to keep them and the business going. Funny as the night wore on, I noticed a growth in his stubble.

Rachel Amanda Bryant plays both Jill and Mia. Jill is the bad actor and Mia is the good actor. The choice to play Jill incredibly bad without character is not a good one.  Bryant needs to find a creative core to this character - someone with which we can identify. Is she a sexpot?  Then create a grander physical life.  Is she scared? We need to see this.   Does she know that she doesn’t have any skills? We need more.  Is she noticing her partner’s reactions? We didn’t see it. Mia is the better actress.  One is not sure she was chosen because she was that much better or Jill was that bad. Mia’s character requires less movement and more of a relationship with her counterpart. If Mia’s dream is to become a star, how is it resolved in the end? Bryant is very likeable.

Michael Sotkin plays Robin with a Justin Bieber affectation and takes us out of the eighties and into late October 2013.  This didn’t work. Robin has the backing of his father’s wealth and a steadfast cockiness as long as he knows that wealth is behind him. But the studio musicians do not provide the backup he needs and his lack of confidence in his talent is the conflict that keeps him from going on. Still Sotkin has a good look and with more training should do fine.

Brice Harris plays Mark, Taylor, and Bob Wainright. Harris was exceptional as Wainright and less so with the other characters. Harris, who looks a lot like “Sonny,” needs a bat or a physical action – the glare doesn’t take him anywhere.  A headlock, perhaps?

It’s The Biz is an interesting play by Michael Grossman and, in a comedy like this, it could be a lot broader without losing anything.  Some of the characters should have been combined.  Real life is no different from stage life – the trick is finding the characters and having those characters work in the extreme for their given moment. Grossman has most of the first act with characters on the phone. The problem with the phone conversations is that, unless it is stage correctly, or effectively done, it has to be recreated when the characters do meet.  This play has been floating around since 1998 and I truly admired the will and determination it took to get on stage. There’s a lot of heart in this production, which means a lot.  The cast needs to take a deep breath and find the creative moments that gel and give them abundant life. And then, well who knows.

Alternates who didn’t perform the night I was there are Jonathan Medina, Eddie Ed O’Brien, Tim Romero, Bryce Lee Townsend.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Leigh Fortier – Production Consultant, Marketing
Allison Schenker – Scenic Design
Argent Lloyd – Lighting & Sound Design
Todd Silver – Stage Manager & Costume Design
Hallie Baran – ASM & Property Master
Dave Milne & Tony Morales – Composers
Phil Sokoloff – Publicist
Eddie Perez – Fight Choreographer
Brandon Devaney – Graphics Design
Andrée Carr Roda – Logo Design
Plays411 – Production Services
Brad Steinbauer – Program Content Design

Take someone who is no longer in the business.

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