You can almost hear the drum roll in the title And the Winner Is, as if author Mitch Albom means to create a sense of anticipation about the play’s collision of the afterlife and the Academy Awards. The comedy’s true winner isn’t any of Albom’s characters, or the artists at Stage Door Players’ production, but the playwright himself. A sports journalist turned runaway best-seller thanks to his memoir Tuesdays With Morrie, Albom has achieved the level of literary fame that can turn shoddy work into a hot property.
And the Winner Is depicts pampered movie star Tyler Johnes (one-time Creative Loafing intern Gabriel Dean) upon his arrival, pantsless and confused, at what appears to be an alcohol-free Irish pub. Tyler spends less time figuring out his predicament than he does obsessing over the impending Academy Awards ceremony, since he’s a nominee for Best Supporting Actor. His companion, elderly Seamus (Kevin Dougherty), only gradually convinces Tyler that he’s actually dead and consigned to a celestial waiting room. Flashbacks and post-mortem loopholes reveal Tyler’s callous, career-oriented life on Earth, including his French-accented agent (Luis Hernandez) and the long-suffering wife, Sheri (Shayne Kohout), he dumped after hitting the big time.
The popularity of showbiz satires, from Tropic Thunder to “Entourage,” sets a high bar for Hollywood comedies, and plays like The Little Dog Laughed (produced last year at Theatre in the Square) can bring fresh insights to the industry’s Faustian bargains. Unfortunately, Winner relies on the most tired and familiar jokes imaginable: “You forgot to say the magic words,” Tyler tells his agent. “Gross, not net?” his agent replies. The play further suffers from inconsistent rules for the hereafter that change willy-nilly. Perhaps Albom wrote the play to empty his notebook for supernatural ideas that didn’t make it into his novel The Five People You Meet in Heaven.
Dean brings plenty of cocky energy to the role, but Tyler’s incessant, sarcastic “Hello?” becomes quickly tiresome. It’s a relief when Tyler’s quiet scenes with Sheri allow Dean to put aside the shrill caricature. Directed by the actor’s wife, Jessie Dean, Winner, finds a few laughs in the ridiculousness of movie entertainment. Tyler became famous for playing a police officer turned male stripper in a franchise called ChippenCops, and earned his Oscar nomination for a prestige film in which he played a one-legged, partially blind Civil War courier with a speech impediment.
And the Winner Is happens to be the last local production to involve the Deans before they each leave the state for graduate school (Gabriel was awarded a James A. Michener Fellowship in playwriting at the University of Texas at Austin). It’s a shame that they’re not leaving on a higher note.