Mean Ol' World

Four Dogs and a Bone
The New Classic Theatre

They're Coming to Make it Brighter
Mixed Blood Theatre Company

BETWEEN ENTERTAINMENT Tonight and Entertainment Weekly, the intrigues and power plays of Hollywood would seem to have been all but exhausted. And yet the public appetite for this aristocracy of mediocrity appears insatiable (as is, I am ashamed to concede, my own). Playwright John Patrick Shanley, best known for his Academy Award-winning script for Moonstruck, ventures onto the oft-plotted field of meta-Hollywood hardball in his 1993 comedy, Four Dogs and a Bone. Produced here by the New Classic Theatre and directed by Peter Moore, the play brings a uniquely fierce intelligence to bear on a well-worn subject.

Set against the backdrop of a sinking film and an impotent director, the plot involves the scheming of two actors, the screenwriter and the producer to escape straight-to-video status. Banking on specious Hollywood connections and an "I am famous" mantra, the soulless Brenda attempts to oust Collette, the film's "contracted ingenue," by sleeping with its screenwriter, Victor. In the meantime, bombastic producer Bradley is convinced that a bothersome "anal chancre, the size of a jumbo shrimp" is connected to the fate of the film and he must pressure Victor to gut his script. In three protracted scenes, these characters duel in pairs--Brenda v. Bradley, Bradley v. Victor, Victor v. Collette--before the closing Battle Royale.

It is rare to see an entire cast with such developed comic rapport. Patrick Coyle's Victor reacts two beats behind the count, stumbling like a confused visitor through his pointless life. Bill Schoppert and Virginia Burke, as Bradley and Collette, are chagrined at their inability to avoid cinematic disaster. Chris Mastey plays Brenda, a woman callous enough to casually mention her incestuous abuse to curry favor, as something of a blank page, but that's the point.

Now, the notion that producers are artless cash-trolls and that catty starlets will prostitute themselves for a speaking part is less than novel. What distinguishes Four Dogs and a Bone is the extremity--and hilarity--of this vision. Victor recovers from the death of his mother as if he's consulted Camus's The Stranger for a guide to grieving. Collette yearns to "cauterize the gorgonzola cheese from my soul," lest she devolve into a character actor. And Brenda offers more than her body to hold on to her dwindling chance at getting the role; by play's end, she is, I must queasily report, pleading to change the dressing on Bradley's anal chancre.

The playwright is the guilty accomplice to Four Dogs's emotional violence; he arms the cast with verbal weapons of his stylized design (who but an author would compare malaise to gorgonzola?) and then pits them against each other like ants in a jar. Looking through that glass, I find myself admiring Shanley's mean streak and his resolve to steer clear of sentimentality, while deploring his refusal to empathize with his own characters. The audience is presumably familiar with the concept that the world is a heartless place, and that Hollywood, of course, is no exception to that rule. But then every dog must have its day, and The New Classic Theatre's remarkable acting carries one off here.

The Mixed Blood Theatre Company's They're Coming to Make It Brighter strikes a far deeper chord as an unsweetened holiday drama. Yes, the Christmas shows are upon us already, every bit as inexorable as steely Saint Nick and his sure-footed reindeer. However, it's difficult to imagine that any will best Kent Broadhurst's play, directed by Omari Shakir and first staged at Mixed Blood 14 years ago. In the lobby of an office building, Shoe-shiner Shobiz, cantankerous elevator operator Charles, his poltroonish partner George and lobby captain Bill banter and shuffle through another Christmas Eve. Tenants come and go delivering identical, pathetic presents for "their boys." The elevators go up and down. The characters tease and gripe like anyone who has worked a lousy job through the holidays, and knows that job will be as unremittingly bleak come the new year. At the periphery of the play, the lobby is being renovated with grim new lights (thus the title) by invisible corporate management, which is also poised to lay off these aging, superfluous employees.

In a late entry for the coveted Worst Press Release of the Year award, They're Coming is described as a "guffaw generator." To the contrary, I found this the most wonderfully sad play I have seen this year: in the tacit dignity of men who are unintentionally demeaned by the people they serve; in the unwaveringly humdrum routine of lonely folks trying to summon some barely accessible sentiment to mark the occasion. And while not everyone will be working on an elevator this holiday season, most of us will be trying to find some reason to believe that our infuriating family affairs amount to something more than habit, and that the new year will be worth facing. Let this fine play show you the way. CP

The New Classic Theatre's Four Dogs and a Bone runs through December 3 at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage (645-1593); They're Coming to Make it Brighter plays indefinitely at the Mixed Blood Theatre Company (338-6131).

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