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A CurtainUp Review
Screen Play

Not long into the 21st century, American power began to wane significantly as she wasted her youth and her treasure on brutal and unnecessary battle abroad. At the same time much of American life degenerated into hectic celebrations of property and possessions saturated with pervasive advertising and underscored by an especially self-righteous brand of the Christian religion.
--Voice Over that introduces A. R. Gurney's sadly possible vision of American in the not too distant future.

Brian Morvant as Walter Wellman, Drew Hildebrand as Nick, and Meredith Holzman as Sally
Unlike Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network, when A. R. Gurney gets mad about the state of our union, he doesn't yell and shout "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more." Instead, he writes a play.

In Screen Play his third political play produced by the Flea Theater and directed by its artistic head, Jim Simpson, Gurney, like the famously quoted Beale, asks us to get mad enough to figure out what to do about the tactics that have landed us in brutal frays and increasing economic and social decay. Gurney obviously takes a dim view of where the administration's mismanagement of foreign policy and the economy is leading us, but he has not discarded his playwright/entertainer's hat. Screen Play manages to turn an alarmingly possible nightmare America into a keen-witted comedy.

The play's conceit is that the conditions described in the above introductory voice over have caused a large numbers of citizens to seek a less corrupted life beyond their own borders. With air travel increasingly uncomfortable and dangerous, these departing citizens are leaving from the same ports of entry which once welcomed their immigrant forbears. The "exodus" city in which the play unfolds is Buffalo, its proximity to Canada via highway having once again turned the erstwhile thriving port city into a bustling gateway.

Some of the seven young actors play swing characters to add to the aura of Gurney's Buffalo as a thriving hub of intrigue. However, the action revolves around a core group of characters: A handsome but cynical bar owner named Nick (Drew Hildebrand); his pianist/singer Myrna (Raushanah Simmons); Sally (Meredith Holzman) the woman who turns out to be Nick's old flame; her metaphorically named freedom fighting husband Walter Wellman (Brian Morvant); Secretary Patch (John Fico) the zealous enforcer of Homeland Security and Charley (Derrick Edwards), the local police chief.

Unless you've lived in a glass bubble and haven't seen Casablanca in one of its many formats for home screen viewing, you'll have little trouble seeing that the playwright has turned his "I can't take it any more" despair into a parody of Casablanca, the classic World War II flick that's been much parodied but never quite like this. Gurney borrows from the film by the heaping cupful, using the most famous lines as well as the plot -- with a few swipes at current personalities like Charlie Rose. The twists on the Casablanca details include transforming the European Ilsa into Sally, a Gore campaign volunteer. Her summer romance with Nick ends as unhappily as that campaign. It all dovetails neatly and amusingly -- well, most of the time.

Even at just 70 uninterrupted minutes, the mix of blasting the administration and deconstructing the movie for maximum laughs tends to wear a bit thin before Nick and Charley (the Claude Rains counterpart) can walk off into the fog. But then it should be borne in mind that this is a workshop production . Unlike Mrs. Farnsworth, which was produced for the Flea's main stage and starred Sigourney Weaver and John Lithgow, this no-name cast venture was not originally intended to be reviewed. As it turned out, rehearsals went so well that Simposn and his colleagues decided to throw Screen Play open to the press -- even though it's being staged in the 30-seat basement space, and the format is that of a reading, with seats and script -holding music stands so understandably there's no set design. (At the beginning, Raushannah Simmons explains the play's title and presentation style by telling the audience that it was intended as a film but was too dangerous and so became a reading).

The music stands and scripts notwithstanding, these young actors are well-rehearsed and seem to have little need of the texts, except for vigorously flipping the pages as if to add an exclamation point to what they've just said. Even though they don't act out the details of the plot, their characters emerge clearly and interact strongly. Drew Hildebrande is especially appealing and comes to the central role of Nick with a fascinating resumer (he's a former U.S. Naval Officer and veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflict). Meredith Holzman as Sally and John Fico as Abner Patch, are also standouts.

Screen Play will continue to tickle Casablanca fans' and Bush haters' funny bones and make pro-Bushies "mad as hell" Downstairs at the Flea through June 25th.

Mrs. Farnsworth
O, Jerusalem

Playwright A.R. Gurney
Dierector: Jim Simpson
Cast: The Flea acting troupe known as The Bats: Derrick Edwards, John Fico, Meredith Hotzman, Drew Hildebrand, Kevin T. Moore, Brian Morvant, Raushanah Simmons
Costume Design: Melissa Schlactmeyer
Lighting Design: Joe Novak
Music Director: Kris Kukul
Running time: Approximately 70 minutes without an intermission
Downstairs at the FleaTheater, 41 White Street (Broadway & Church Streets), 212-352-3101
From 5/27/05 to 6/25/05--Extended to 7/30/05
June 4 at 3pm; June 5 at 1pm; June 10: Jun 10, 11, 15, 16, 24, 25 at 9pm; Jun 18 at 1pm
Reviewed June 4th matinee by Elyse Sommer
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