You could say that live theater has a love affair with Hollywood. Playwrights love to pay tribute to old movies, from drag versions of campy genres to big stage musicals of classic films. And theater also loves to demonstrate its loathing for the industry itself.
In plays such as John Patrick Shanley's Four Dogs and a Bone or Craig Lucas' The Dying Gaul, the writers usually come across as martyrs more sinned against than sinning, while other showbiz denizens -- stars, agents, producers -- behave like whores in all their whorishness. David Mamet teased Tinseltown in his film State and Main but reserved his real moral ire for Speed-the-Plow on stage.
Based on a Totally True Story at Actor's Express turns out to be a rare exception -- almost shockingly so -- by treating the film business with affection bordering on tenderness. As the title suggests, playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa presents a semi-autobiographical tale about the tension between relationships and creative pursuits, and the latter prove surprisingly rewarding compared with the former. Directed by Matt Huff, Totally achieves such a funny, rapid pace in part because some of its subplots generate so little dramatic friction.
Narrator Ethan Keene (Jeremy Aggers) describes what sounds like a dream life as a young New Yorker who makes a decent living at a fun job -- writing The Flash for DC Comics. He's just found a new boyfriend in Michael (Alex Brooks), an aspiring novelist and reporter for the Village Voice. Ethan's primary creative vocation as a playwright has stalled, though, and no theater has produced his downbeat, supernatural new script.
Then Hollywood comes calling in the person of Mary Ellen (Kathleen Wattis), part of an independent husband-and-wife team of producers. She tells Ethan there's a movie in his play, as long as he's open to some "tiny" changes.
Nearly every Hollywood play has an equivalent scene, which could be called "the Faustian story meeting" (or "audition" for more actor-based stories). You find prime examples in Jewish Theatre of the South's recently closed Brooklyn Boy and Actor's Express' 2000 production of The Dying Gaul. In each case, the writer learns that to write a viable screenplay, he'll have to sacrifice the one thing about his work that he treasures most.
But in Totally's equivalent moment, Ethan caves almost immediately with relatively minor second thoughts about compromising his work. Mary Ellen proves similarly unusual as a demanding but nurturing showbiz insider, whom Wattis plays as energetic and blunt without resorting to the stereotypical crassness of such characters.
Totally engagingly conveys the pressures that Ethan faces as he writes The Flash, adapts his play for the movies and tries to be a good son and boyfriend. The character's aesthetic conflicts seldom prove very meaty; he shows fewer qualms over his artistic integrity than the contradictory quality of his story "notes." Nor is there much tension between his day job and "real art," since he seems more genuinely enthusiastic about superhero comics than his other pursuits.
Ethan's diversity of interests reflects not just that of the playwright, but possibly that of an entire generation. Aguirre-Sacasa writes The Sensational Spider-Man and has staged numerous plays at Atlanta's Dad's Garage. His shows such as Say You Love Satan and Weird Comic Book Fantasy find lively metaphors in so-called "junk" culture, from horror movies to old comic books. Writers of earlier decades would be painfully aware of an aesthetic pecking order, with theater near the top, commercial movies further down and comic books scraping bottom. For today's young writers, the different media seem virtually all of a piece.
Ethan's biggest troubles come from his relationship demands, both from Michael and his father (Mark Gray), who confesses his marital difficulties. Aggers' enormously likable performance, full of scruffy boyishness and infectious enthusiasm, occasionally contradicts Ethan's more closed-off qualities. He frequently deflects talking about a personal problem with a maddening "It's nothing" that's manifestly untrue. Emotional availability finds a fairly obvious metaphor in the discussion of whether superheroes should tell loved ones their secret identities.
Brooks brings out Michael's testy qualities early on, and may be conveying the jealousy of his character, a less successful writer. Our sympathies rest more with Ethan, but if Aggers had more of Brooks' sternness, and Brooks conveyed more of Aggers' congeniality, their relationship would seem more credibly complex.
Totally touches on themes about guilt and cheating. Quint Von Canon plays multiple roles, including that old Hollywood story stand-by, the scantily clad, well-built, would-be movie star providing temptation by the swimming pool. The play builds to a wise, lovely line to the effect that living amounts to accumulating regrets, but Ethan enjoys so many triumphs with such relatively minor disappointments that Totally amounts to an unusually sunny success story.
The play begins with the opening bars of the theme song of "Entourage," which suits both the show's youthful vigor and its fondness for HBO. The play hints at what "Entourage" would be like if the sitcom focused exclusively on a movie star's life of privilege, without also showing the mortifying struggles of eternal B-lister Johnny Drama. With its cheerful tone and optimism in the face of harsh realities, Based on a Totally True Story makes everything look easy.