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A CurtainUp Review

According to Goldman
By Kathryn Osenlund

Nobody knows anything.
---Gavin Miller quoting William Goldman on insider knowledge in Hollywood
According to Goldman is a film buff's delight. A Bruce Graham play, it's having its world premiere performance by the Philadelphia Theatre Company. PTC is Philadelphia's only non-profit professional theater dedicated to producing regional and world premieres of works by contemporary American playwrights.

As the play opens the audience sits in on a college screenwriting class, which will be woven into the play's fabric. During the course of the evening maybe fifty movies are mentioned. The Goldman of the title is of course William Goldman of screenwriting fame.

Bruce McCarty is absolutely fabulous as Gavin Miller, a screenwriter with minor screen credits turned college professor. He's a sharp cookie with an acerbic sense of humor, the bright and entertaining teacher we all wish we'd had. Graham's great trump lines and McCarty's nonchalance combine to make Gavin Miller quite the fascinating guy on campus.

On the home front it's a different story. Wife, Mel (Carmen Roman) has settled into a comfy, neighborly, and socializing early retirement. She'd like her husband to settle into teaching and forget about Hollywood. But Gavin is busy taking and placing calls to the West Coast, flirting with Tinseltown deal mavens.

A new student, Jeremiah Collins (Tobias Segal), begs to join Gavin's closed screenwriting class. He wins Gavin over and gets a place in class through his unusual knowledge of old movies. Jeremiah, the earnest, old testament-quoting son of a missionary, is a stumbling, shy, religious studies major. Overcoming possible underlying personality disorders, he turns into a promising film writing student under Gavin's tutelage.

Crazy for old movies, particularly Fred Astaire movies -- especially Top Hat -- Jeremiah dances in real and imagined scenes. In a memorable dance to the strains of "Flying Down to Rio", he uses a bathrobe as a partner. Tobias Segal, local young actor, is fresh, light, and winning in the role.

There are lines to die for, and mostly Gavin gets them: "They hate dialogue out there. They're still pissed about The Jazz Singer," and "It's kind of To Sir With Love meets Taxi Driver." Gavin on Hollywood: "It's not a religious town out there." And, "audiences are made up of, unfortunately, other people." There's a whole shtick about an Anne Frank animation project, with a cat, a gag about a mouse who looks like Sgt. Schultz, and a happy ending.

Although Gavin cautions the class about knowing the difference between a script that sells and a script that's good, it appears that he, himself has come to confuse the two. As the play turns, Gavin becomes ever more involved in a screenplay that Jeremiah is writing for class.

A lecture explaining what the act must contain is given at the start of the act. For example, a second act contains rising stakes, complications and twists. As well as providing classroom fodder, this gimmick delineates a structure for the play we are seeing. Except you still can't tell what is going to happen at any given moment. This is a plus. It's also a minus.

Things are sprung on us, ok. But some important things need groundwork laid first or they are simply incongruities when they happen. For example, a character goes through some major changes offstage between scenes. We see the before and after, but not the process, and the technique produces surprise at the expense of credibility.

There are some wonderful elements in the construction of the play. Spatial shifts are neatly accomplished. Scenes overlap one another and often turn on a word that repeats in both scenes, a spiffy trick that moves the action from one stage area to another like a film transition. But although the movement works well, the set itself is not visually remarkable.

In addition to spatial changes, there are focal changes. It's as if the married couple is seen from a distance in acts one and two, when they are distant from each other and involved with their own preoccupations. In act three the vantage shifts to tight shots. We get the wife's exposition, up close and personal, which bogs things down even as it elucidates. And although the glimpse of Gavin and Mel is in tighter focus, it doesn't make for better chemistry, and their relationship still seems more distant than it is perhaps intended to be.

The proscribed Hollywood screenwriting process implies that if you have all your ducks in a row, you end up with a complete screenplay, or in this case a complete stage play. However, this play may contain more material than it can support. According to Goldman is packed with material twisting in different directions. Just as you think it's going in one direction, it goes someplace else. It is about screenwriting, teaching, and mentoring. It's also about conflicting ideas, decisions, career choices, and closed doors. From another vantage point it's about a marriage and self knowledge. The play is brimming with plots and inter-intra character relationships, fantasy scenes, father-son issues, calls from the coast, movie nostalgia, reality checks, deals, trust, ego, and deception, and most of that's before intermission!

Despite comments to the "class" about how the audience has to feel the emotion in a play, there isn't enough preparation for feeling, and so not much emotion is communicated in this play. Even as we truly enjoy the ride, admire the technique and appreciate the turns, we're waiting to care about the characters.

I own Goldman's books, and I've been looking forward to seeing this play open. My verdict? According to Goldman is new and different, and light years better than many plays I've sat through. Although I believe the play still needs development, it 's an impressive display and well worth seeing. Bruce Graham is a major talent.

By Bruce Graham
Directed by Pamela Berlin

Cast: Bruce McCarty, Carmen Roman, Tobias Segal
Set Design: Michael Schweikardt
Lighting Design: Ann G. Wrightson
Costume Design: Amela Baksic
Sound Design: Nick Rye
Choreographer: Liz Curtis Running time: 2 hours and 15 mins with one 15 min intermission
Philadelphia Theatre Company at Plays & Players Theater
3/19/04 through 4/18/04
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 3/27 performance