Growling at Hollywood

In addition to his numerous stage plays, John Patrick Shanley has written a fistful of movies. His credits include everything from the quirky art-house flick Five Corners to the Oscar-winning Moonstruck to the deliciously simian adaptation of Michael Crichton's Congo. His movies are eccentric, odd and full of audaciously farcical moments. Thus, when Shanley turned his playwright's pen to the moviemaking business, as he did with Four Dogs and a Bone, currently playing at Theater LaB, it's not surprising that the play he wrote turned out wickedly funny and strange.

The four dogs are the play's four characters, who fight over how to make a movie -- the bone. Bradley, the producer, needs either to come up with more money or persuade the writer to cut several scenes from the film. Brenda, the ingenue, tries every possible way to have her role made bigger and better. Likewise, Collette, an over-the-hill "stage actress," tries to manipulate her way into having her role beefed up. And finally, the screenwriter, Victor, must fight to maintain his dignity and some semblance of control over the script he's written, all the while learning the ins and outs of moviemaking. You see, this is his first screenplay, and he's truly naive, unlike the ingenue Brenda, who only pretends to be naive. In this land of schemers and players, the writer is the best there is, in terms of integrity. He's the only one with an artistic vision. And he's the only one who isn't lying. In fact, this play functions as a sort of writer's wish fulfillment, because in the end, the writer ... but I get ahead of myself.

The plot of Four Dogs isn't very thick. Indeed, the play's structure is so terribly simple -- two acts that each contain two long scenes -- that it would seem almost sophomoric were it not for the wonderfully odd developments in each of the characters. It's their peculiarities that turn them from flat "Hollywood types" into whole characters who are at once poignant and outrageously funny.

Brenda, the ingenue, has "written" an entire personal history for herself that includes a famous stepbrother and an incestuous relationship with another brother. "He incested me!" she exclaims over and over, hoping to make people like her better -- until she discovers, to her surprise, that nobody likes her tale. She's snaky enough to sleep with both the director and the writer in order to get her way, and smart enough to figure out what's wrong with the script, even though this is her first movie. She is, in many ways, the funniest and most fascinating character in the script.

But Melissa Cox Clarke, who plays Brenda in Theater LaB's production, appears to have neither the experience nor the comic timing to pull off this complex role. She walks about the stage with her hands clenched in fists most of the time and tells Brenda's fabricated life story with all the subtlety of a silent-film star. Clarke does, however, light up when she shares the stage with Therese Kotara, who plays Collette.

And that's because Kotara is so wonderful here that those who share the stage with her can't help but get better in the glow of her infectious and big-hearted energy. In fact, Kotara's performance as Collette, who's one film away from being relegated to small character parts, is enough to carry this entire production, and to make it worth seeing more than once. As Collette and Brenda battle for power in their dressing trailer, Collette covers a tremendous emotional landscape. She is wounded when she hears that the producer has called her acting "kabuki"; she's repulsed when she discovers that the same producer has been using her dressing room to change the Band-Aid that covers a wound on his ass; and she speaks with all the wry wisdom of a soon-to-be has-been when she explains the Machiavellian machinations of the movie business. Throughout it all, Kotara is hysterically funny and so unpredictably truthful that when I was there, the folks all around me sat forward in their seats whenever she was on-stage, anxious to see what came next.

Ben Pollock, who plays Victor, the writer, with fine intelligence and wit, is also lucky enough to share a long scene with Kotara, one in which they get drunk, flirt and reveal their weaknesses. Victor is a former playwright who loves his movie script almost to death. He hasn't yet figured out that unless he's willing to part with some of it, he might lose the whole thing. In fact, the central conflict of the play is Victor's coming to grips with the unromantic, and decidedly artless, realities of money moviemaking. He must come of age, and that means he must learn how to manipulate power.

This is a lesson he learns finally from Bradley, the producer, who's played by Christian DeVries. Bradley spells out the whole money problem in layman's terms. If Victor doesn't cut scenes, and the movie isn't made by the time the producer runs out of money, the backers will seize control of the film, cut it themselves, lay some voice-overs to make it all make sense and send it straight to video. DeVries's Bradley is a slimy weasel of a man who has developed a sore on his "rectum" the "size of a jumbo shrimp" (the metaphor is obvious). The role is a strange one. Clearly, playwright Shanley doesn't think much of producers. Bradley is both obnoxious and grotesque. DeVries is quite producer-like (whatever that means) in his performance, though he kept getting within inches of his fellow actors' faces to bark moviemaking truths at them, more like a bad-ass drill sergeant than a movie producer with a bad ass sore.

Mostly, though, you must see this play to see Therese Kotara. She seems to be having the time of her life on-stage, and that is a joy to behold.

Four Dogs and a Bone plays through February 15 at Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo, 868-7516.

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Lee Williams