The problem with “zany” and “kooky” is that sometimes you get “Dr. Strangelove” and sometimes you get dumb-goofy and annoyingly silly. There are a few moments in ACT’s new revival of John Guare’s“Rich and Famous” that approach Peter Sellers-esque kookiness, wackiness in the best sense of the word. And then there’s the rest of the play.
The new production at ACT which opened this week is the first major revival of this 1974 play about a young New York playwright on the opening night of his first produced play. We follow him on a late night’s steeplechase through the pot holes of budding playwright dystopia, (AKA off- off o-off Broadway, AKA Alphabet City in the East Village). We observe him both before and after the reverberating thud of the stacks of tied- up newspapers that hit the sidewalk – their theater reviews soon to be revealed.
Still, “Rich and Famous” was not written by an untested playwright struggling to break through. By 1974, Guare had already produced “The House of Blue Leaves”, which went on to be a big hit. In 1990 Guare would write “Six Degrees of Separation,” a fascinating play that was later turned into a successful movie starring Will Smith.
But you wouldn’t espy any of that talent from seeing “Rich and Famous” – an oddity of a play, a play that probably would not merit revival if it wasn’t a Guare play – or a Guare play directed by John Rando (of Urinetown renown).
Brooks Ashmanskas plays a young playwright whose first play, is a sweeping autobiography that also, somehow is about the lost The Etruscan civilization.
The playwright, Bing Ringling, meanders through an “After Hours”, sort of night in downtown Manhattan. Ringling’s sojourns takes him from the theater (“a toilet on death street”) where the lead actress is snorting coke backstage, to a trash can where his producer is going berserk, (scheming for a flop to plot a come-back) to the shocking pink boudoir of his closeted composer. He runs into his leading actor (Gregory Wallace as comically trampy and swishy part time male prostitute) at the Algonquin—both are desperate to track down a hotel guest, Bing’s childhood friend, now a huge, sexy movie star.
Guare’s next play would be a rock musical of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and Ringling’s next play (composed with crack-pot closet case) is a musical based on the Odyssey and the Iliad called the Oddiad. So its not that surprising that Guare is open to putting music in the most unlikely places. Here, the characters break into song hither and thither, but not quite enough to make “Rich and Famous” a musical, and not well enough to compensate for the ill-fitting combo of farce and yearning musicality.
When the play gets sentimental – lost loves, long-ago dreams, the disappointing realities of fame, it’s simply hackneyed mediocrity. When it ventures into the totally bizarre, there are moments of genuine fun. Stephen DeRosa’s turn as the Looney composer, a Yoko Ono-ranged experimental free form musician who enjoys exotic percussion and frequenting Hamburg “death bars.
DeRosa and Mary Birdsong also achieve sufficient zaniness as Bing’s wack-job parents, living in a shrine to his youth and saving everything from his childhood (really, everything), including dirty diapers and chicken-pox.