Recipe for Disaster

While Angel City, Sam Shepard's slice of life at the Hotel California A that La Brea tar pit of decadence, megalomania, and self-destruction you can check out of but can never leave A isn't one of the playwright's better-known plays, and hardly constitutes the definitive take on the soul-sucking movie industry it attempts to castigate, the 1976 drama nonetheless receives an energetic revival at Florida Playwrights' Theatre. Director Timothy Paul and assistant director Jacquelin Swirski appreciate what's essential in Shepard's work A his ear for the music in language. Although the rage-driven acting out that characterizes much of the playwright's oeuvre comes across as too shrill in this production, enough jazz-inspired moments of overlapping dialogue, performed as if they were improvisational riffs, carry the evening.

Since the 1960s Shepard's plays have chronicled the fabled and the dyspeptic sides of our national mythos, particularly pointing out Americans' nostalgic longing for the lost Western frontier and our propensity toward violence. Open-ended one-act plays, written in the white heat of inspiration without benefit of revision, define his early work. Elliptical, thematically obtuse, bypassing narrative logic and linear character development, these splashes of visual and aural imagery were the dramatic equivalents of the art forms that reigned supreme in New York City in the Fifties: abstract expressionism, beat poetry, and jazz.

Longer and more traditionally structured, his work of the early-to-mid 1970s retained signature Shepard elements, including hallucinatory monologues, angry confrontations, mythic-symbolic settings, and language that rode the rails between musical phrasing and self-invented American jargon. By the mid-Eighties, the playwright had moved into a more realistic mode, with a powerful series of "family" plays, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child and the shattering A Lie of the Mind. Although marked by more convincingly developed characters, these dramas and his subsequent plays continued to explore his original concerns with fantasy and violence.

Angel City belongs to what roughly could be called Shepard's second stage A plays about the struggle for power, enacted in exaggerated, surreal settings, the most original of which is The Tooth of Crime, about a top-of-the-heap rock star and a younger, tougher upstart who sets out to displace him. In the less acclaimed Angel City, Shepard tackles the movie industry, exploring how Hollywood juggles illusion and reality as it exploits our collective desire for escape, and how the artist, lured by commercial success, strikes a Faustian bargain A his integrity in return for the corrosive nature of control and the empty promise of fame. (The latter consideration lies at the heart of our materialistic, image-ridden culture, but it's also a personal dilemma for Shepard, who has has combined playwriting with a successful film career, starring in movies such as The Right Stuff and Crimes of the Heart.)

Rabbit Brown (Timothy Paul), an unshaven, dust-covered artist, arrives from the desert at a Los Angeles movie studio that is actually a prison compound, where he finds a host of industry climbers trapped within its confines. Moviemakers Wheeler (Marilyn Gresh, cast against gender) and Lanx (Todd Allen Durkin), up to their eyeballs in an over-budget project spiraling out of control, have recruited Brown, part script doctor, part stuntman, part shaman, to save their movie from disaster by turning it into a disaster movie. (Remember the spate of Seventies hits: The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Airport?) Trying to contain his rising panic, Brown elicits the help of Tympani (Elisa Blynn), a drummer chained to her instrument, and Miss Scoons (Lori A. Dolan), a starstruck secretary. Ultimately, their collaborative scriptwriting session unravels into independent psychotic episodes from which no one fully recovers.

Shepard peoples his nightmare studio with types rather than recognizable individuals: a despotic movie mogul who believes he's turning into a lizard; the yes man who turns around and abuses everyone below him; the compliant secretary who relies on body language to communicate her desires; the creative musician who sells out for security; and the rugged individualist in the tradition of the Western outlaw, who succumbs to the sweet smell of success. And, influenced by improvisational techniques known as "transformations" practiced by the 1960s avant-garde Open Theater, the characters shift back and forth between altogether different personalities from scene to scene. Ideally, this allows actors to stretch in several directions throughout the course of the action. Even as Blynn, Nolan, and Durkin, at times, nimbly shift from role to role, the overall impression here is of an intro-to-acting workshop in the throes of improv exercises.

Gresh manages an astonishing physical re-creation of herself as a lizard, as if she were turning into a Gila monster from the inside out; yet her paranoid, raving movie mogul lacks irony, subtlety, or slyness, especially in her predictable encounters with her nemesis, Brown. And Paul, as Brown, does not fare any better. I'm skeptical of directors who cast themselves in leading roles; the dual focus almost always takes its toll. In this case, Paul's skittish interpretation of script doctor Brown reflects the actor's discomfort with the character. He can't seem to decide who the guy is; as a result, neither can we. On the other hand, as a director, Brown understands the gritty lyricism of Shepard's poetry and conducts the actors through several exciting ensemble numbers in which the text sounds like a hybrid of scat singing and bebop a cappella.

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