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Diva

Theater LaB Houston production gets tripped up by awkward writing

Faded film star Deanna Denninger (Celeste Roberts), the diva of Theater LaB's Diva, is the first to admit that she "didn't fuck Harvey Korman without learning a little something about comedy." Deanna loves to drop names, especially those of her conquests, however fleeting. She learned a little something about lesbians, film direction and sex from David Bowie, Orson Welles, Frank Capra, Marty Scorsese and Warren Beatty.

Although her silver screen career is gone with the wind, she has slickly maneuvered into a phenomenally successful TV sitcom — called Deanna, naturally — while abusing all the truly talented people who are responsible for creating her second career: writer Isaac (Eric Doss), producer Kurt (Bob Boudreaux), agent Barry (Steve Bullitt), co-star Ezra (Rafael Zubuzarreta) and studly fourth husband Petey (Richard M. Keck). Okay, Petey's only talent is to keep Deanna happy in the sack and to walk the dogs — a nasty job, but somebody's got to do it. When we first meet her, as she browbeats everyone within sight into submission, Deanna is sad, delusional, megalomaniacal, salty as the Dead Sea and frequently hilarious.

Psycho bitch from TV hell: Deanna Denninger (Celeste Roberts, with Steve Bullitt and Bob Boudreaux)
Doug Kilgore
Psycho bitch from TV hell: Deanna Denninger (Celeste Roberts, with Steve Bullitt and Bob Boudreaux)

Playwright Howard Michael Gould tells his nasty little tale of television, and showbiz in general, backward in time, in the manner of Kaufman and Hart's Merrily We Roll Along or Harold Pinter's Betrayal. Big mistake. This literary device didn't work at all for the legendary Broadway comedy duo and was mildly successful for the Nobel Prize-winning contemporary dramatist; in Gould's hands, it is annoying and ­extraneous.

Gould's backpedaling, time-shifting structure is pointless and needlessly confusing, especially if you forget to read the playbill, where the scenes are delineated "one week earlier," "four weeks earlier," "eight months earlier," etc. If you don't know what's happening, you'll become thoroughly muddled. Director Ron Jones, who keeps the action moving at a sprightly sitcom pace, obviously didn't read Gould's own printed script instructions, which state that "the time change be made clear to the audience at the beginning of each scene, via projection or narration, or both." Projections would keep all heads clear, as Gould intends, but even if spelled out in neon, the overall backward structure trips up the story's flow and calls attention to the writer and not his characters. It screams, "show-off!"

Deanna's bitchy selfishness and machinations mellow somewhat as we meet her going backward, but at the end we don't know any more about her than if Gould had written his comedy in standard chronological fashion. She doesn't really change all that much. The producers never would have allowed writer Gould to have gotten away with such a hollow trick on his own successful sitcoms Cybill or Home Improvement. Maybe that's why Gould wrote it this way, because now he can finally do what he wants — without the Hollywood interference he writes about with such a poisoned pen. Of course, he also might have realized that he didn't have much of a play, then reversed the scenes to keep it intriguing and the audience off guard.

As the psycho bitch from TV hell, Celeste Roberts is sublimely wicked and thoroughly obtuse, whether barking orders or sincerely confessing that she thought the book Little Women was much better when she learned that it wasn't really about little people. She's sexy, too, which is all Deanna has going for her — well, that and great hair, which is a major plot point later on. On top of that, she looks every inch the radiant, powerful, scary star. A sensational actor, Roberts knows a great comic character when she meets one, and wisely plays the silliness straight.

Boudreaux is mellifluous and unctuous as Deanna's toadying producer, catching the sad undertones of his banal job. Bullitt perfectly captures the role of slimy agent as mail clerk made good, who knows his power is fleeting and can only be used as a weapon while his clients are on top. Buff Keck gives dense Petey comic muscle, and Zubuzarreta supplies aspiring actor Ezra with giddy charm.

As the altogether frustrated writer Isaac, a clear stand-in for author Gould, Doss is less convincing. Then again, he has to spout Gould's dubious beliefs about the importance of the Great American Sitcom and a TV writer's place in the universe. Olivier couldn't deliver such gassy and overblown sentiments with any ­conviction.

Francisco Robledo's minimal set design — a table desk, or director's chair placed against a red background with slanted palm tree silhouettes, as if facing a gale — aptly showcases the actors, as do Janis Fowles's lovely gowns for that other gale, Deanna.

Some real zingers land throughout Gould's script, but for the most part Holly­wood pretension survives without major bruises. You can't draw much blood with pinpricks in reverse.

 
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