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A CurtainUp LA Review

by Stanley H. Nemeth

Howard M. Gould's Diva receiving its official world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in set in the world of the Hollywood TV industry. The comedy details the rise and fall of a writer of TV sitcoms, one Isaac Brooks, as he tangles with his aging and egomaniacal star, Deanna Denninger, of the hit show named not surprisingly Deanna br>
The sequence of the comedy's scenes moves in reverse, from Isaac's power-play firing from the show back to those happier days when the TV types involved made initial promises only later abandoned out of self-interest. The final scene occurs at a cocktail party five years in the future, long afterthe decline and cancellation of the sitcom Deanna itself, giving us an update on the writer and his former star.

Whether this comedy will prove to have long legs or short, at La Jolla it has received a production that clearly meets the playwright's requirements in terms of casting. No great demands are placed on any of the actors but each is adequate to the assigned role. Susan Blakely is convincing as the self-centered, otherwise vacuous TV actress Deanna, initially concerned most with her hair style, later with interpolating bits of autobiography into her hit show. Jere Burns is chipper and then suitably anguished as the oddly naive TV writer Isaac. Paul Provenza brings a commanding presence to Barry, Deanna's new agent and later surprisingly staunch defender. Jonathan Hogan is rightly manipulative as the TV show's chief producer, open only about his desire to maximize bucks. Tim Maculan is a credible, easily dominated second banana, and Timothy Warmen looks suitably studly as Deanna's new empty slate of a boyfriend.

Whatever drawbacks are present lie not in the production but in the play. Though the author in interviews has protested to the contrary, this work about the world of sitcoms seems not very different from a sitcom itself. If it doesn't have a laugh a minute, it indulges heavily in that staple of TV comic writing, non-incremental repetition. Thus in just about every scene Deanna tells us which famous star she's slept with, and what she's garnered from the experience. This sledgehammer method of seeking laughs, typical of the writing, gives the audience what it has come to expect -- more TV. In fairness, it should be pointed out that most of the audience seemed to eat it up.

Like a sitcom or a daytime soap, Diva has little subtext. What you see, surfaces and stereotypes, is pretty much what you get. Insofar as any ideas emerge from this play, they're either simplistic or falsely naive. For instance, one character laments of TV that "overall viewership keeps shrinking , what with cable, new networks, the Internet" and another adds that these "recent" developments have made the formerly nice industry nasty and cutthroat. Since Hollywood and TV boardrooms have never been known as the natural homes of exalted business ethics this effort to enlighten the audience seems to reflect at most an individual's single experience writ large.

Similarly, the writer, Isaac, is unchallenged in his declaration that because the novel is dead and movie comedy has become insignificant, TV writing is the best spot for the literary artist today. This leaves one clueless as to what Isaac or his creator consider superior TV writing.

The comedy's final scene, set on an attractive balcony with an Art Deco railing and palm trees in the background, looks like something out of Private Lives , and indeed we have Isaac and Deanna meeting again by accident after the severance of their relationship. Noel Coward himself is even mentioned in a preceding scene, but here all similarity to his deft and witty stage comedy ends. The two principals exchange some non-memorable lines and then achieve a rapprochement of such improbability it suggests, just like one in the lives of daytime soap characters, that whatever previous experience of each other the writer and the actress have had, they've clearly missed the meaning.

Editor's Note: While this is the official premiere, Diva had a very high profile production during the Summer 2001 season at the Williamstown Theatre Festival's 66-seat Nikos stage. Since summer 1999, the WTF closed Nikos productions to reviews from critics read beyond the immediate area -- in other words, all but a couple of local newspapers. The policy was prompted by an understandable desire to give new plays a chance to be seen in a nonjudgmental environment (though the lineup of plays usually includes at least three time-tested works). At any rate, I saw but did not review Diva. Now that it has had its sanctioned opening, I would add that I agree with Stanley's overall assessment. The director was then, as now, Neel Keller but the main character was well played by a real-life diva, Bebe Neuwirth, whose scene-to-scene costume changes alone were worth the price of admission. Eric Bogosian added a stellar name but was a rather dazed, unimpressive Isaac. The supporting players were excellent.

Stanley's comments about the Coward reminiscent last scene begs yet another comparison -- the forward-to-backward structure was famously used by Harold Pinter in Betrayal. While it worked well here, it struck me as the crux of Diva's TVish derivativeness. -- Elyse Sommer

Written by Howard M. Gould
Directed by Neel Keller
Cast: Susan Blakely (Deanna Denninger), Jere Burns (Isaac Brooks), Paul Provenza (Barry Joshua), Jonathan Hogan (Kurt Fast), Tim Maculan (Ezra Twain), Timothy Warmen (Petey Ryan).
Costume Design : Candice Donnelly Scenic Design: Andrew Jackness
Sound Design: Robbin E. Broad
Lighting Design: David Lee Cuthbert
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission
La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Forum, La Jolla Village Drive at Torrey Pines Road, UC San Diego, La Jolla, CA. (858) 550-1010
Running 9-12-01 through 10-14-01. Opening 9-23-01.
Reviewed by Stanley H. Nemeth based on September 23, 2001 matinee performance.

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