In the latest play from the Edge Theatre's artistic director, Jim Tommaney, a young, queer drama critic (like me) works for an alternative newsweekly in South Florida (like this one, but called CityTimes) and writes nasty, bitchy notices about everything he sees, regardless of quality ("It's not about the play!" he explains to his boyfriend. "The reviews are about me!"). The critic is called Randy Herrin, and he wants to make a name for himself. He sees big things in his future and believes nastiness alone will be enough to send him rocketing into the stratosphere of theater criticism (because theater criticism is so glamorous).
Herrin acts like the most solipsistic rock star you could imagine, and his editor treats him with astonishing deference. He's praised for writing negative reviews and for being such an insufferable dick. He's offered $78,000 per annum for his first full-time gig and dictates his reviews over the phone to an editor with a gruff German accent, who giggles maniacally at Herrin's nastiest puns while twisting his mustache, occasionally saying things like "Mein gott! Ze blogs vill go crazy ova dees edgy verk!"
Toward the end of the show, the editor of a New York magazine (called New York Magazine) confronts our critic with some dirty pictures she received in the mail. During the phone call, she shows him these photos, saying, "Do you recognize this person?" The implication is that, for the duration of the play, Herrin has been communicating with his editors via videophone. A further implication is that big-time editors in New York care passionately about the sex lives of their critics.
This really happened onstage. No kidding.
At one point, Herrin remembers a time when he saw an old black man fall off a bus. He didn't help the guy; instead he stole the old guy's bike from the rack on the front of the bus just to see what it would feel like. And so he is a vile, vile man — worse than anybody you would ever meet in the real world — and you can't even praise Tommaney for making sure Herrin got his comeuppance in the final scene. Of course he did. In the real world, no one this horrible could have avoided censure for half as long. And in the end, it isn't even evil that brings Herrin to ruin, but his kinky sex life.
It is impossible to ignore this ending's implications, with regard to the playwright's sense of justice. And this is only one of Ambition's glaring problems. There are many others, most of which begin with the show's fundamental premise: that publishing your opinions about ephemeral performances that nobody will ever see again is such a prestigious gig that career-minded opportunists are lining up to apply. This is flatly ridiculous, and that's a problem. Within minutes of curtain-up, it becomes apparent that Tommaney knows nothing about the practices of alternative newsweeklies. We critics do not dictate our stories, and our editors do not cower before us (quite the opposite). Nor do they glory in negativity (again, quite the opposite; editors love it when we can say something nice about the local arts community — it is the community to which they have the most philosophical allegiance).
Tommaney plays fast and loose with all manner of facts here. Take for example the moment when Herrin calls up the Drudge Report with "a scoop." (Where'd he get that phone number?) They ask if he's willing to do assignments, even though the Drudge Report is a compiler and doesn't employ stringers — but I should move on.
I haven't yet begun to discuss the performances themselves, which are so bad that I shall refrain from naming the actors. They are plainly amateurs and are unlikely to show up at another venue. I will, however, offer them some advice (and I'm speaking especially to the gentleman who played Herrin): If you refuse to act, at least try to learn your lines. Please. People are paying money to see you. And if you know for certain that you can't act — that you can't even approximate the rhythms of natural speech and cannot bring yourself to feel even a little of the emotion you mean to convey — then just stop it.
But Ambition's most critical flaws are the hollowness of Tommaney's writing and the disdain he exhibits for his own creations. Herrin is evil for no apparent reason. His motivations are barely hinted at, and at no point does Tommaney seem at all interested in getting to know him. We get only one clue to the origins of the critic's nastiness. It comes during a conversation with his lover, who suggests a Tennessee Williams play deserves "a chance." "Of course," the critic responds. Then, when alone, he finishes the thought: "the same chance my family gave me."
That is not motivation; it is rank laziness. But the bald nastiness of that statement and so many others in Ambition might lead an audience to wonder if the play is something both greater and worse than a merely bad drama: a glimpse of the world as Jim Tommaney genuinely believes it to be. A place of pre-Freudian, floating evil, where sex must be met with punishment and only viciousness can lead to success. In every scene, I thought I could hear the playwright cackling, Ha-ha-ha, you fucked up, evil world! Now I've got you! And indeed, the world is fucked up. But, Mr. Tommaney, since you've begged the question, what about you?