Local playwright Patrick McGowan's new play has no right to be as good as it is. The central character is the late theater director Alan Schneider (Bill Robens) -- known for staging some of the best plays by Absurdist authors, including Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway, and introducing almost all of Samuel Beckett's plays to the American stage. Film has no right to be so good because Schneider, in this play, is an insufferable, flailing bully. The play is Schneider's nightmare -- an Absurdist nightmare, naturally -- a comedy and inexplicably scintillating entertainment about artistic failure. This biographical story, set in 1965 New York, features Schneider trying to make a film from a screenplay by Samuel Beckett (Phil Ward), who has come to New York to work with Schneider. Joining them to star in the slogging, portentous film, also named Film (now regarded by some historians as a "masterpiece") is Beckett's favorite comedian, Buster Keaton (Carl J. Johnson), long past his prime, spiritually at ease with his station in life, and willing to play along with the clueless intellectuals and a film crew whose patience gets sorely tested. Ward's Beckett is a delightfully rueful, awkward and solitary figure, aching in vain (of course) for the affections of the star-struck yet savvy prop mistress (the lovely Deana Barone). Johnson's Keaton (Mandi Moss handily plays the comedian in his younger days) has a pleasingly bemused perspective on Schneider's insane temper tantrums. Framing the story are slivers of Waiting for Godot in both French and English, and, in another nod to Beckett, a vaudeville in front of a curtain, featuring a kind of Mutt and Jeff routine, here played out by Schneider and the source of his envy, director Mike Nichols (who grabbed the job directing the movie of Virginia Woolf), portrayed here as a figure of rare competence by Trevor H. Olsen. Despite his production being slightly too long, director Trevor Biship knows exactly what he's doing, astutely staging the action with supplementary archived film clips on Sarah Palmrose's emblematic set of a stage within a stage within a stage, each with its own curtain, and together depicting the multiple, clashing realities inside Schneider's tormented brain. Theatre of NOTE, 1517 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through March 21. (323) 856-8611.
Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Sun., March 15, 2 p.m.; Thu., March 19, 8 p.m. Starts: Feb. 13. Continues through March 21, 2009