Acting Out

The American theater is in a shitload of trouble," says a character in Jane Martin's often screamingly funny Anton in Show Business. Of course, if all productions were as smart and naughty and flat-out entertaining as this season opener for Stages, then theater would have no trouble holding its own against the flick and the tube. Fact is, playhouses everywhere struggle to be economically viable, and they do so for all the strange, absurd and loopy reasons that Martin spits out in her hilarious screed.

There is perhaps no dramatist better equipped to dish the inside dirt. The elusive playwright is generally believed to be Jon Jory, the man who, after a long and successful reign, recently stepped down as producing director of the hugely respected Actors Theater of Louisville, where Anton in Show Business was first produced this past spring. Who better to beat this "dead horse from the inside," as one character so aptly puts it, than one of the theater's hardest-working producers? No one would know more about badly behaving corporate sponsors or surgically beautified, no-talent television actors or, ahem, unfriendly critics, all of whom get a well-deserved thumping during this two-hour rage that is as much love story as polemic.

The play within a play about the making of plays features an irate audience member (Lisa Marie Singerman) who stands up and fusses at the actors throughout the show. Aren't you being a little too "self-referential? and too precious?" she shouts. The conceit is hilarious and very smart, mostly because it's a concise metaphor for the whole script, which in some ways is just another hermetic art-house whine. Yet there's a lot to recommend this particular whine.

The swiftly sketched-out characters live large and fast. There's the innocent, just-got-off-the-bus actress; the jaded, been-there-done-that TV star; and the black clothes-wearing Actress with a capitol A. There's the corporate drone from the sponsoring cigarette company, not to mention pompous directors of every stripe. There's a gay costume designer, a lesbian producer and a rich-hick funder. All these familiar theater types are run through the grinder in Martin's love-you, hate-you script and are brought to nimble life by the seven women who make up director Rob Bundy's almost perfect cast. Producing a rare chemistry that radiates with joy and energy, the seven women play all 15 roles (including the men) with absolute conviction and dead-on comic timing.

The stage lights come up on Lisabette (Joanne Bonasso), a naive Texas flower who has discarded the chalky drudgery of third-grade teaching to chase her acting dreams. We meet her just as she's preparing to audition for a role in Chekhov's The Three Sisters at the San Antonio Express Theater. Waiting with her is Casey (Anne Quackenbush), a middle-aged queen of off-off Broadway who has earned the uneasy distinction of closing 200 productions, all of which she has done "without ever being paid."

When a foppish British director gets snotty with Lisabette and Casey, Holly (Shelley Calene-Black), the platinum-blond TV star who's doing Chekov in Texas only to gain some respectability, feels sorry for the two actresses. Holly forces the lesbian producer (Connie Cooper) to fire the English ninny, and the three actresses find themselves cast as Chekhov's sisters.

The women meet up with a whole slew of characters. The new director (Ann James), who's courtesy of the Black Rage Ensemble, meets with the cast only to proclaim, "I never did no white play. Y'all a mystery to me." The director decides to do Chekov without the script, saying the Russian had a case of "the self-pity diarrhea." The show's third director, Wikewitch (Elizabeth Byrd), turns out to actually understand Chekov. Though he speaks in broken English, Wikewitch has so much passion in him -- "I fuck you with my art, and then you cry out" -- that he manages to teach the seemingly soulless Holly a thing or two about acting.

In the second act, there is a misbegotten love story -- it mimics the one in The Three Sisters -- that slows down some of the torqued-up energy of the show. And the last two scenes get too sentimental, which is exactly what the loudmouthed audience member (who turns out to be a small-time critic, wouldn't you know) advises against. In them, Martin spells out some rather sophomoric points: That theater is about people and community and the love of art. To quote the playwright, it's all so much "talk, talk, talk."

These minor bobbles do little to mar the extraordinary and wonderfully cohesive work done by this cast and crew. (Katherine Snider's costumes, many of which place women in drag, are especially fine.) Hilarious, smart and even a little warped, Anton in Show Business ought to make everyone who enjoys a good story turn off the tube, forget the flicks and head down to the theater.

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Lee Williams