"I am your gravy train to fame and fortune!"
Many, many plays and movies have examined the moral morass that is Hollywood, but few have done it in such a -- well, ruthless way as Arthur Kopit's Road to Nirvana.
Written in response to David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, which starred Madonna, Road to Nirvana is about a team of producers who will do anything (literally, anything) to guarantee fame and fortune. Because fame and fortune, ultimately, bring power, and Al wants power so badly he can taste it. Jerry just wants recognition, fulfillment, some spark of excitement in his life, but in the end the siren call of money and power overtakes him as well.
Nirvana (an obvious stand-in for Madonna) is a coked-up, deeply weird rock star, convinced that she was an Egyptian princess in a past life and that Moby-Dick is the metaphor of her life. Her "adaptation" of Moby-Dick (in which a giant white penis replaces the whale) makes its way into Al's hands. Al thinks this script is the Holy Grail of scripts -- it's that project that will bring in a record domestic gross in the first week alone, with the star who will guarantee him more money than God. He signs on his street-hardened Jersey girlfriend, Lou, as co-producer, and then he must convince his former partner Jerry to sign on.
Jerry, poor guy, is made to endure a series of tests that get more and more bizarre in order to prove his devotion and reliability. The more macabre the tests get, the more he wants to continue -- he can't let a little thing like pain stand in the way of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Oddly, the perversions of the film industry drove Al and Jerry apart in the first place, many years ago; now those same perversions may yet define their careers.
Arthur Kopit, best known for Broadway's Nine and for Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad and Indians, has crafted a merciless and picaresque look at the movie industry. Mamet's inspiration is plain; Kopit uses the same blunt language in the same unrelenting examination of his characters.
Oberon Theatre Ensemble gave Road to Nirvana new life, with a strong and charismatic production. Donovan Johnson's direction kept things lively for the most part. The pace lagged in places, needlessly slowing down the inevitable (but surprising) conclusion. Ian Pfister's versatile set was authentically scenic, though the omnipresent black curtains did weigh it down a bit. Otherwise it perfectly captured the ambiance of SoCal.
The actors were the jewel of this production, though. Brad Fryman as Al was deliciously smarmy, the kind of greaseball everyone loves to hate. Strident and arrogant, he was also falsely effusive, telling Jerry he loves him repeatedly but yelling at the help. Summer Shirey, as his tough girlfriend Lou, was a riot. She stole much of the first act, despite the escalating fight between Al and Jerry. Philip Emeott (Jerry) came into his own in the second act; so much of the first act was spent reacting to Al's outlandishness that he came off as merely passive. Granted, he got a little shrill when he was excited, in both acts, but he showed his versatility in his scene with Nirvana (Adria Woomer), running a gamut of emotions in a matter of minutes. Shirey and Woomer were more nuanced actors, though their roles are essentially one-note (the male characters are one-dimensional, as well. It's a play about stereotypes, after all). And Fryman and Emeott had a strange and repellent chemistry that offset the lack of character development.
Road to Nirvana is certainly unique, if a bit over-the-top; the cast had an odd chemistry, but it was perfect for such a quirky play.
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Copyright 2004 Jenny Sandman