Los Angeles theater buffs may recall one of the biggest Ovation Award upsets ever, when the under-the-radar West Coast Premiere of Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe went on to win four crystal statuettes, including Best Production, Best Ensemble, and Best Direction. Far fewer will be aware that, at about the very same time as that production was set to open, another group of L.A. actors were rehearsing the very same play, only to discover a week before their own opening that someone else (the future Ovation winners) had the rights to Killer Joe—and they didn’t.
Writer/actor Christopher Brewster was part of that ill-fated second production, but in a storybook example of turning lemons into lemonade, a brand new script was written to fit the five-actor cast in one frenzied week.
Doubting Thomason is playwright Brewster’s look back at that experience, and a more hilarious comedy could not have been come out of near disaster than the one now provoking gales of laughter at North Hollywood’s Avery Schreiber Theatre.
Doubting Thomason opens with two of its actors pummeling a third to shouts of “Kill her! Kill her, Joe!”—only to have company member Thomason (Brewster) read aloud this blurb from The Acting Thespian: “New this week at the Sacred Tostada Theater is our Pick of the Week, Killer Joe, by Tracy Letts.”
Six weeks into rehearsals with only a week remaining before their first performance, five desperate actors suggest possible substitutions (including Sexual Perversity In Chicago, Love! Valor! Compassion!, 12 Angry Men, Key Exchange, and Beyond Therapy), but none of the above has exactly three male and two female roles, and as one of the thesps comments, “Even if we think of a play we still have to get the stupid rights.”
Blonde bimbo Kate (Kelly Kemp) is in near hysterics; after all, Days Of Our Lives casting director Marnie Siatta is coming to see her. Pseudo-Brit Teddy (Paul Storiale) refuses to jeopardize his “Equity-eligible” status by doing a show illegally. Stoner dude Jake (Artie Ahr) finds their situation a “serious buzz kill,” and contemplates making his move to Hawaii a few months ahead of schedule.
When Thomason announces his plan to save the day (“I will write a play this week. We will rehearse it as I write it and we’ll perform it on opening night!”), skeptics Kate and director/cast member Lynette (Bree Pavey) remind the would-be playwright that his last opus took him two years to write (“and you didn’t even finish it”). Still, Thomason is bound and determined to put his plan into action since, unbeknownst to the others, he’s used Teddy’s $1000 investment to buy his unsupportive parents a pair of first-class plane tickets to Opening Night.
In the immortal words of whoever first said them, “The Show Must Go On,” and go on it does, though Teddy has provisions. “I will agree to proceed with this theatrical carrion on one condition,” he informs the playwright, “that you include a man-man kissing scene,” then goes on to add, “Don’t forget the nudity. That auspicious little disclaimer on an ad that reads, ‘Warning: This Play Contains Violence And Nudity’ is good for at least half a house per night.”
The storyline that Thomason comes up with bears a certain resemblance to Killer Joe’s, though instead of having a down-on-his-luck drug dealer plot his mother’s murder with the help of his father and his mother-in-law, “Murderin’ Ted” has trailer trash lovers Bonnie and Lee hiring the titular hit man to bump off Bonnie’s hubby Robert, who unbeknownst to them is having an affair with Lee’s wife Blake. Got that?
Avid L.A. theatergoers will relish Doubting Thomason’s tongue-in-cheek look at our local stage scene, where “Equity-eligible” divas like Teddy insist on their 99-seat plan stipends (a grand total of $108 to be paid in addition to reimbursement of his $1000 investment) and TV-star wannabes like Kate break the “No Cell Phones” rule because “it’s a business call. It’s about a seminar at Actors Acting in Action with someone who knows a casting director really well.” (In the interest of accuracy, it should be noted that this does not reflect the Best-Of-L.A. productions spotlighted here on StageSceneLA.)
Thomason’s clever script alternates between behind-the-scenes looks at a production in chaos and the equally chaotic script they are rehearsing, giving each of the company’s actors two very different roles to play … and play quite dandily, credit shared with director Pavey (who starred in both previous productions of Doubting Thomason) and co-director Steve Jarrard (who directed those earlier stagings).
The evening’s standout performance belongs to Ahr, Scenie winner for his devastating work in the original production of The Columbine Project. Looking like a cross between a young Brad Pitt and Matthew McConaughey, the charismatic Ahr makes for the most hilarious dazed-and-confused stoner since “Dudes” Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott went looking for their car, then turns things around to downright scary effect as Murderin’ Ted, a cold-hearted killer who could give Arnold in Terminator a run for his money.
Brewster merits four rounds of applause for a) creating Doubting Thomason in a moment of crisis, b) playing quite niftily both harried Thomason and self-described “stallion” Robert, c) producing the whole kit and caboodle, and d) being quite a looker both in and out of his clothes. Kemp, who provided some of the few bright moments in a recent Three Sisters, is a delicious hoot as a) an actress more interested in booking a soap gig than in honing her craft and as b) trashy-but-sweet sexpot Blake. A delightfully droll Storiale has tremendous fun with both Teddy’s pretentions and Lee’s dimwittedness. Pavey, in a 180 degree turn from her dramatic roles in The Columbine Project, proves herself an deft comedienne as both Lynette and Bonnie, the latter role providing her with the opportunity to strut her dramatic stuff as well.
Doubting Thomason does indeed deliver on its promise of a man-man kissing scene. There are in fact two of them, though not perhaps what Teddy had in mind when he made his stipulation. There is also blink-and-you-miss-it full frontal male nudity from Brewster and Storiale, though Kemp and Pavey are considerably less coy than the men in their topless scenes.
The production’s uncredited set and costume designs are precisely what you might expect from the ragtag group of actors putting on Murderin’ Ted. In other words, they are just right for Doubting Thomason. Cory Price gets thumbs up for equally bare-bones but entirely appropriate lights and sound. Behind-the-scenes personnel do not receive program credit.
Doubting Thomason is precisely the kind of play to inspire the oft-quoted refrain, “It ain’t Shakespeare,” and the equally oft-quoted response of “So what?” I laughed out loud from start to finish, as did Saturday’s nearly sold-out house, and in the words of another oft-quoted remark, “What more can you ask for?”
The Avery-Schrieber Theater, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.
July 16, 2011