An initial impulse upon discovering a new play about Hollywood types making a movie in an exotic location is to get down on your knees and pray, “Please Lord, not another play by and about dissolute filmmakers grappling with their purpose in life.”
After a few minutes watching writer-director Shirl Hendryx's Games on a Bombed-Out Beach at West Hollywood's Macha Theatre, however, you'll realize that your prayer has been answered — at least in this case. This is not just another riff on David Mamet's dissection of the movie biz, Speed-the-Plow, nor is it a variation on Douglas Carter Beane's facile coming-out comedy about a movie star, The Little Dog Laughed. Rather, Hendryx's play is a smart, complex and fascinating (albeit overwritten) character study of people who are privileged enough to make movies.
The play is set on an isolated Greek island, and as the cast settles in, arguments over the script lead to an existential showdown between jaded British film director Paul Deckhard (portrayed with glassy-eyed world-weariness by Jonathan Salisbury) and the movie star responsible for hiring him, Jim Branson (Richard Chassler).
There are, of course, any number of petty reasons why the two men eventually come to loathe each other, but the core of the matter is a far more vital philosophical dispute, encapsulated in the different ways they view a Marx Brothers comedy: When a string quartet floats out to sea, still playing, Branson just sees it as funny, whereas Deckhard perceives the scene as absurdist despair.
The play's other virtue lies in how the many dimensions of its central characters keep unfolding.
Branson is rendered by Chassler with a perfect wide-eyed callowness; he uses his every spare moment to speak out against whatever social atrocity has floated into his gaze from the pages of The New York Times, whether these atrocities occur in Uganda, Iraq or the United States. Branson is like an amalgam of Warren Beatty, Tim Robbins and the parody Matthew Bodine in Blair Singer's 2009 play, Matthew Bodine Saves the Alpacas.
Being politically conscious, however, does not necessarily make Branson particularly aware. He's blind to most of the details that should be guiding his life decisions. At the outset, for example, he's oblivious to his wife's previous affair with director Deckhard, whom Branson has just fought to employ in hopes of making his next movie a step up, artistically, from the studio hits he's been churning out. Branson also is clueless to Deckhard's professional reputation as a laggard who hasn't completed a movie in four years and was fired from many of his other projects, and has no idea of how, precisely, his wife of two years worked her way up the Hollywood hierarchy. Branson is a guy who places intuition above research.
“Why do you hate me so much?” Branson eventually asks Deckhard.
“I don't hate you,” Deckhard sneers. “I don't hate boy scouts.”
In his portrayal of Deckhard, Salisbury bears a vague resemblance to Alan Rickman's condescending, abusive prose instructor in Theresa Rebeck's Seminar. As Branson's wife, Lisa (Jane Hajduk), rightly points out, Deckhard's relentless cynicism is pathological and wearisome, an attitude trying to pass for wisdom — that is, until a crucial scene in which Deckhard expresses with bona fide insight the crux of the divide between the two men.
Branson believes what he sees in front of his own eyes, Deckhard explains, when in truth, when we see a flower, what we're seeing is the stream of associations that come from it. What we're seeing bears scant relation to the reality of that flower.
Deckhard's view is Platonic, while Branson is a kind of Oedipus, floundering as he wrongly presumes that the flowers and stars and newspaper headlines he sees are all exactly as he sees them. That this play is set on a Greek island, where enigmatic winds howl through ancient ruins, makes perfect sense.
Yet playwright Hendryx's stacked deck against Branson is also the drama's biggest vulnerability. If Branson had at least done some research before lobbying for his director, or getting married, Deckhard couldn't so easily swat him like a fly. In the balancing act between a drama and a satire, were Branson just a little bit more savvy, the play's fundamental showdown between action and fate would have deeper tragic resonances.
As Branson's wife, Hajduk offers a delicate and plausible performance as her character becomes morosely introspective and drawn to Deckhard's darkness. Both characters are annoying in their own way, but being likable was never a requirement for complex characters to be intriguing.
Drew Katzman's producer, Harry, has a wobbly appeal, and the production also features a nice performance by Jacques Freydont as the village mayor. TJ Alvarado and Stephanie Colet make fine cameos as the local bartender and the production assistant, respectively.
Thomas Meleck's arch-punctuated Mediterranean set design combines bedroom and bar with a ramshackle hotel's entryway. The characters keep referring to this being the beginning of the 21st century, but on this set, and with the play's blend of soap opera and astute philosophical ruminations, Games could easily be a lost play by Tennessee Williams.
GAMES ON A BOMBED-OUT BEACH | By Shirl Hendryx | AhHa! Productions in association with Macha Theatre, 1107 Kings Road, W. Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 22 | (323) 960-4429 | plays411.com/games