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A CurtainUp Review
Based on a Totally True Story

This is a story about a guy, a writer, and another guy, also a writer, and a dad (the first guy's dad), and a play the first guy wrote, and the people in Hollywood who want to turn that play into a movie, and what happens with the people in Hollywood, the first guy, the second guy, the first guy's dad, and what they learn about themselves and the world. (Beat.) It's a slightly familiar story, but that's okay because nobody likes things that are too original or challenging-(beat)-I eventually came to discover --- Ethan.

Kristine Nielsen in <i>Based on a Totally True Story</i>
Kristine Nielsen in Based on a Totally True Story
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
If you agree with Ethan (Carson Elrod) the central character in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's handsomely produced and well-acted comedy, you'll enjoy Based on a Totally True Story. Its familiarity is beyond slight when it comes to Ethan's Hollywood producer-agent Mary Ellen. The as always marvelous Kristine Nielsen not only reprises the sort of wide-eyed, outspoken character she's perfected in other plays but immediately sends visions of Julie White's hilarious Hollywood agent from Douglas Carter Beene's The Little Dog Laughed which has just announced its transfer to Broadway. (review) Awash as we've been in homosexual romances, Ethan's at first joyous, then bumpy relationship with Michael (Pedro Pascal) and its bittersweet conclusion is also more than "slightly familiar.".

What saves Aguirre-Sacasa's comedy from being not just comfortingly predictable (or, depending on your point of view, excessively so) is that the playwright adeptly juggles a dual writing career for Ethan (he has been successfully dreaming up new adventures for a comic book character and ahsalso written a play with big movie potential). The play's subtext with the personal problems and opportunities piling up in Ethan's life , his family's emotional problems (Ethan's difficulty in sharing his feelings with Michael has its roots in his mother and father's discontent with each other that has been given voice after thirty-three years). There's also the script's authenticity which no doubt owes much to the the basis for the title's claim of being "based on a totally true story." The playwright is indeed a comic book writer, employed by Marvel Comics to write The Sensational Spiderman.

While Nielsen, like White in Little Dog frequently threatens to run away with the acting honors, as the at once Hollywood savvy and endearing Hollywood producer with her own gone but not forgotten marital problems, Elrod and Pascal are appealingly on the mark as the hyped-up, neurotic Ethan and the quieter but equally intense Michael. The latter's mistakenly happening into a tiny downtown alternative to the Lincoln Center area Barnes & Noble Starbucks where he's supposed to have a blind date with a doctor, is stylishly tied to the ending. Another pickup date with a hunky Hollywood actor (bravo to Erik Heger for differentiating himself in this as well as three other roles). Michael Tucker is also good enough to make Elton's dad believable and funny, after a beginning that makes him seem like a character who wandered onto this stage in from an old sitcom.

The dialogue is seasoned with a few too many homilies, most of them courtesy of Mary Ellen ("Everyone in Hollywood's unfaithful because everyone in Hollywood has a first love-a true love-besides his wife or her husband". . ."Honesty is an overrated virtue"). However, director Michael Bush keeps things moving along and the overall result is light and bright -- just .like a chapter in a comic book story.

This is the second Aguirre-Sacasa play to be reviewed at CurtainUp this week, the other, Bloody Mary, a curtain raiser for Dread Awakening, a four-play homage to horror flicks. Don't be surprised if one of these days this hot, young double dipping author comes up with a play that isn't quite so self-consciously hip but will stick to your mind long after you've seen it.

Based on a Totally True Story
Playwright: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Directed by Michael Bush
Cast: Carson Elrod (Ethan Keene), Erik Heger (Tyler, Apple Boy, Kim's Guy and Hot L.A. Guy), Kristine Nielsen (Mary Ellen), Pedro Pascal (Michael Sullivan) and Michael Tucker (Ethan's Dad).
Set Design: Anna Louizos
Costume Design: Linda Cho
Lighting Design: Traci Klainer
Sound Design: Ryan Rumery
Running time: 2 hours including one intermission.
Manhattan Theater Club at City Center, Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan, (212) 581-1212 From From 3/23/06 to 5/28/06; opening 4/11/06.
Tickets: $48; $25students
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 13th performance
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