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LETTERS TO EDITOR
In Glen Merzer's new comedy, Anonymous, Zien is the central character, Harris Harbison. Like the New Brain's composer-hero, Harris is gifted, this time as a fiction writer. While he has published three novels since graduating from Yale, none have brought him fame or fortune. He is, in fact, living below the poverty line, as one glance at his New York walk-up apartment with its window facing a brick wall and bathtub next to a tiny kitchen sink makes amply clear. Instead of radio and television interviews and sacks of fan mail, he contents himself with the letters from his one deeply devoted fan, Michaela (Rosemarie DeWitt -- appearing mostly, but not solely, as a voiceover accompanying Harris' needy readings and re-readings of her letters ).
As Zien's Mr. Bungee became the employer from hell, so Zien's Harris now becomes the hired hand of not one but two bosses, both representing everything that contradicts his belief in the purity of art over commerce. One of these Mr. Bungees is Roy Canelli (Peter Appel), a gangster and would-be novelist who hires Harris to fix up the writing which "gets in the way" of his otherwise terrific book. Harris was recommended to Canelli, (a sly allusion to Italians as gangsters in general, and "don't forget the canoli" from that most famous of Italian gangster movies?) by Donna (Betsy Aidem). She's a much married nutritionist who treats Roy's potassium deficiency and, since his Yale classmate Tim (David Arrow) arranged a blind date, Harris' long neglected sexual appetite.
Even before the siren song of filthy lucre via Roy's deal to pay him $25,000 plus a TV set to be his ghost, Harris is lured from his anonymous, alienated and impoverished existence by his college chum. Tim meddles as constantly in Harris' life, as he drops in uninvited and snacks on his peanut butter and crackers (an omen of a worm in the friendship since a really good friend would bring a container of Chinese food or other goodies rather than dig into his friend's meager provisions).
Tim drags Harris out of his hermit's existence into a job at his advertising agency. The job interview with Ed Lustig (Kevin O'Rourke), the agency's creative head and the blind date with Donna are the play's comic highlights. In both instances, Harris does his utmost to discourage Ed from hiring him and Donna from wanting to see him again. All three actors miscommunicate hilariously and with perfect timing.
So there you have it. A starving artist suddenly becomes gainfully employed by two bosses, each anathema to true creativity. The blind date he resisted rouses him from his sexual diet (we witness what has clearly been an all-night event or as Harris explains as "a sperm backup he's had since the Bush administration. "
The job also turns out to be a-okay, as are the things money can buy to make life more pleasant -- good food, a microwave (which actually zaps a duck dinner with mouth watering odors wafting through the theater), plants and other decorative enhancements and a laptop instead of a typewriter. But we need more than Mr. Merzer's gift for apt dialogue to sustain the promising first act. The playwright sets up his premise with a series of brief, satisfying scenes but his carefully erected dramatic building blocks come tumbling down in the second act.
The dishonest Roy is refreshingly honest about wanting to be famous as well as rich . He serves as a funny counterpoint to Harris' less convincing embrace of anonymity. Yet, even Peter Appel's skills as an actor cannot rescue this character from its stereotypical movie and tv forbears. Once he describes what it's like to be famous -- ("Think of the best sex. Picture it lasting five to seven times as long . . .and the woman you're with like someone you've thought of for years. And she's your best friend's wife!") -- the play stops being funny as fast as the ghosted Something To Shoot For climbed to the top of the best seller list.
Adding to the deconstruction of the humorous setup Donna fades out of the picture and the accommodating ad agency boss has reason to stop being so happy-to-lucky which also brings Harris's job to an end. A big confrontation with Tim makes some potentially interesting stabs at the dynamics of friendship, but never really makes its point.
Director Pamela Berlin has stretched Anonymous to its full potential and the design team couldn't be better -- especially Edward Gianfrancesco's amusing turnaround set with its many spot-on details. The TV set which is part of Harris' Mafiostian ghostwriting contract adds a clever bit of business -- a televised interview with the best-selling author watched by Donna and Harris on the set now perched on the spruced up studio's bathtub. This brings us to an as yet unmentioned cast member, Elizabeth Franz. This fine actress, last seen in a Tony Award winning performance as Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman, here plays the one-scene video taped bit part of the TV interviewer. I have seen fine stage actors playing bit parts in films to support their "live" acting careers, but this mysterious bit of throwaway casting is something of a mystery. It leaves one wondering if this is a test for getting screen actors to appear on stage without having to interrupt their more lucrative film and TV careers.
LINKS TO SHOWS MENTIONED
A New Brain
Death of a Salesman