Play On!

State Theater Company's 'Anton in Show Business' Offers a Reason to Keep Believing in Theatre

Left to right: Andrea Osborn, Peggy Lee Pleasant
Left to right: Andrea Osborn, Peggy Lee Pleasant

Man, the American theatre is one seriously fucked-up place. Here's this company staging The Three Sisters -- a drama of great themes and characters, real classic stuff, you know, demanding actors of range and commitment -- and the company totally built the show around a TV star who has not only no serious performing chops but no experience in theatre and, worse, no real interest in it. (She only took the gig to leverage a little "legitimacy" as an actress in her bid to ditch the tube for movies.) And this group's artistic director, whose idea of a company meeting is a three-hour therapy session, is banking so heavily on her lead's star wattage to put butts in the seats that she lets the TV diva hijack auditions and hire a pair of actresses who may or may not be worth their weight in headshots just to spite the director, a nitwit Brit who eventually gets the heave-ho anyway, in favor of a righteous African-American sister whose bright idea for the production is to throw out all of Chekhov's text. (The diva gets her booted, too.) Meanwhile, company members are propositioning each other right and left, so everyone is getting screwed, either metaphorically or literally, and the whole shebang is hanging on the delivery of the corporate check by a tobacco company flunky who doesn't know his filter from his ash-hole. The star has no scruples, the artistic director has no sense, the corporate funder has no clue, and this appears to be the status quo! With all this ego, greed, lust, insecurity, and ineptitude, the American theatre is making Hollywood look like a Benedictine monastery.

At least, that's the state of the art in Jane Martin's wryly comic Anton in Show Business, a hit at the 24th Humana Festival of New American Plays and a finalist for the 2000 American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award. The comedy wittily paints the contemporary stage as a zoo, a madhouse, a circle of hell, overrun by loons and lunatics so preoccupied with money, image, and themselves that they can hardly be bothered to create art. Whoever Jane Martin is -- the playwright's true identity has been hidden behind the Martin pen name for almost 20 years now -- "she" clearly possesses an intimate knowledge of theatre production and administration, for this account of an ill-fated attempt at Chekhov in the boondocks (San Antonio, wouldn't you know) catalogues the artistic temperament and personal folly that infests the theatre with wicked precision.

A similar familiarity marks the State Theater Company's production of Anton. The way that director Scott Kanoff and his creative team portray the myriad absurdities bedeviling the contemporary stage -- heightened, larger than life, but rarely so overblown as to be cartoony -- communicates a sense of the observed, of personal experience. You get the feeling these artists are drawing on their own encounters with directors who babble nonstop gibberish, auditions that grind an actor's spirit into the stage floor, colleagues who lack the emotional sensitivity (and frequently the acting talent) that God gave a goose. Moreover, the eagerness apparent in the seven actresses who fill all the roles here suggests the mischievous enthusiasm of kids mocking their teachers when the grown-ups' backs are turned. And watching their melodramatic antics and blatant spoofery of theatrical excess can inspire the same giddy pleasures of those schoolyard send-ups. As with school, you may find the theatre seriously screwy, warped, maddening, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy watching its twisted ways lampooned. If anything, that makes the frustration bearable: the fun in seeing it made fun of.

But I can already hear the murmurs from some corners: Yet another play about putting on a play? And from Jane Martin? A dramatist known for plays about issues of social import, matters of conscience, is writing about preening, self-involved actors, egomaniacal directors, shallow, money-grubbing producers, and the glory of the theatre that endures despite their worst efforts to undermine it. We've been here before -- with Ken Ludwig in Moon Over Buffalo and Michael Frayn in Noises Off and Ronald Harwood in The Dresser. This is the same territory plowed by Moss Hart's Light Up the Sky and George Kelly's The Torch-Bearers, that goes back to Richard Sheridan's The Critic -- hell, back even to Shakespeare's theatrically challenged rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream! And Jane Martin, who dramatized the debate over abortion with such passion in Keely and Du, who confronted the issue of punished sex offenders re-entering society in Mr. Bundy, is focusing "her" prodigious talents on the ridicule of touchy-feely artistes and backstage affairs?

Is this what American theatre has come to: gazing at its own navel and contemplating the lint therein, the serpent devouring its own tail? Has the art form become so distanced from the rest of the culture that it can no longer relate to anything beyond the stage curtain? Is the theatre just a dying star falling in on itself, collapsing into a black hole, so small and heavy that no light can shine forth from it?

Left to right: Osborn, Joy Cunningham, Lara Toner
Left to right: Osborn, Joy Cunningham, Lara Toner

Funny thing, but those are precisely the questions Jane Martin asks in this play. In Anton, the playwright doesn't just mock the usual suspects in a generalized theatre that could be from any decade in the last half-century. Martin sets her work in a very specific now, in a period when economics have forced the art form to two extremes: blockbuster musicals on the one hand and minimalist straight plays on the other, when making a living from theatre is tougher than ever, when the community theatres of old have been replaced by ever more specialized -- and politicized -- niche companies, when the loyal theatre audience of the postwar era has pretty much died off and the decline of arts education has ensured that no new generation of theatregoers will succeed them. Martin's characters repeatedly butt up against the obscurity of what they do in relationship to other cultural pursuits, slamming into the monolithic popularity of films and television. They beat their heads against the brick wall of economic reality: the poverty of the working stage actor, the overwhelming need for corporate subsidies and its influence on theatre programming. Martin even has one character repeatedly interrupt the narrative to question the self-indulgence of the script and relevance of the art form. How, Martin is asking, can the theatre stay diverse in such an era of economic and political pressures? How can it continue to relate to a broad audience of people, to a community? Hell, outside the shrinking band of narcissistic aesthetes who tread the boards, who even cares about theatre? With so much eating away at the art form, what's left? That timely question is what is at the heart of Martin's play and what distinguishes Anton in Show Business from so many of its backstage comedy predecessors is its echo among the familiar bad behavior and outsized personalities of the drama queens. Amid the wreckage of this Alamo City Chekhov, Martin is seeking an answer and some reason to believe -- to continue to believe -- in theatre.

What she finds and offers us, the audience, is a lesson drawn from the play her heroines are working so hard to stage. Martin's choice of The Three Sisters isn't capricious. The title characters in that play are dreamers, who have a place where they want to be, that they long for and strive to reach -- the ever-elusive Moscow -- but they find themselves sidetracked by the demands of careers, financial constraints, by relationships, age, external factors, by ... life. So it is with Anton's actresses, only their Moscow is That Great Production, that Theatre That Matters, Art. What keeps the Off-Off Broadway veteran Casey, the TV diva Holly, and the fresh-from-UIL-One-Act Lisabette from that place of their dreams is largely what distracts Olga, Masha, and Irina, i.e., life, and ultimately, Martin's thespians have to acknowledge, as Chekhov's sisters do at the end of their play, that they may never reach that place. What they have to do is accept where they are and work to make their lives there better. It seems to come down to one of those "the journey is the destination" things. There's value in work, in just doing it, in striving for something, even if it never attains that transcendent ideal in your head, because there's always the chance that something in that work, as modest or flawed as it might be, will still connect with someone, will still touch a community, will still make a difference. That last part owes more to Martin than Chekhov, perhaps, but it's still connected to Anton's grounding in the real world, the here and now, and what you make of it.

Of course, with the way Chekhov served up such a message, you were often hard pressed to figure why he called them comedies. With Martin, you have no doubt. She seeds Anton with enough meticulously crafted laugh lines, character gags, and satirical zingers to reap a stageful of laughter. When she dishes up a quip like the one about Actors' Equity -- "the union that makes sure no more than 80% of its members are out of work at any time" -- it's clear that the playwright may have some weighty points to make, but damn if she isn't going to have fun making them. And the State's production follows suit. Kanoff infuses the proceedings with an air of playfulness that keeps the crowd primed for a good time. Design-wise, that ambience is most clearly represented in the largest element of David Potts' set: a gigantic map of the United States that hangs over the back of the stage. It's distorted to humorous effect, with illustrated symbols to denote cities and landmarks in accordance with Martin's Broadway-centric view of the country's theatrical geography; it's like a jumbo version of one of those kitschy old cartoon postcards for sale in roadside souvenir shops.

Beneath this exquisitely painted gag, Kanoff's actors caper, appearing to take, as noted, an open pleasure in much of their work. Certainly, Peggy Lee Pleasant, who opens the show as the talkin'-right-to-the-audience, scene-settin' stage manager ("homage to Thornton Wilder") and reappears as the dashiki-clad queen of black rage ("Brother Chekhov, he talk talk talk talk talk! He got the self-pity diarrhea!") and the cheerfully treacherous cigarette company drudge ("Is this the Martha Graham Dance Company? May I speak to Martha?") radiates merriment through the characters she plays. Both Babs George and Patricia Pearcy may sink themselves a little more deeply into their characters, a couple of whom are among the play's least comical figures, but George's "but enough about me, what do you think about me" self-actualized artistic director and Pearcy's gobbledygook-spouting, smug twit director display enough outlandishness of personality to give the impression that these actresses are having a high old time. Even Helen Merino, as the audience surrogate Joby, whose metatheatrical challenges to the rest of the cast suggest someone for whom humor is a foreign concept, plays the character's innocence and reactions to her colleagues brusque retorts with such deliciously crisp timing and comedic grace that one senses she's taking part in the party.

As for the women playing Martin's three "sisters," you can see their pleasure -- and pretty much the key to their individual characters -- in the same way, via the facial feature that most plainly conveys pleasure: their smiles. Andrea Osborn breezes through the show with the broad, beaming smile of the winner. Her small-screen sex goddess Holly is a winner, sitting on top of the world with buckets of money, fame, looks, and power, and she relishes it. There's a trace of a smirk in her grin, and a little wolfishness, too, signaling the character's self-satisfaction and ravenous appetite. It's a charismatic, engaging, fun performance, and you look at her smile and know there's no stopping the woman behind it. Joy Cunningham's smile is more circumspect; her Casey, the veteran who has slogged through dozens of basement theatres appearing in obscure productions for which she was never, ever paid, rarely shows her teeth when she smiles. She's seen too much and won too little, so she brandishes the brittle grin of the cynic. Cunningham's smart, close-to-the-vest performance shows us that Casey hasn't lost her sense of humor, but she's had it baked into a dry, dry thing. Where the corners of her mouth turn up a little, it seems as if there are sharp edges. You look at her smile and know that a lot has been thrown at this woman, and none of it has been able to stop her yet; she will survive. Finally, Lara Toner has a smile that, like Osborn's, is broad and bright, but it hasn't the sense of experience to it. Toner's innocent Lisabette, fresh off the bus from a small Texas town, hasn't won a thing yet; she's still in the game, and her sunny grin tells us she's pleased as punch just to be in the running. It's a pageant contestant smile, but not one of those pristine, manufactured ones. It's the real deal, the gosh-gee-golly grin of a kid gettin' her first gander at the big ol' world. You look at that smile and know how little she's seen and how much lies ahead of her. Those three smiles project very different characters, yet they create a sort of bond among these women. The three actresses complement each other nicely and forge a credible relationship that is easy to believe in and enjoy.

For the State Theater Company, this show has more than the usual resonance at this moment in time. In a sense, the company is living a version of the mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world that Jane Martin takes us through. This is a company in the thick of all sorts of changes and construction -- transforming an old movie theatre into a new performing arts facility, hiring a new artistic director, undertaking a merger with another theatre company -- that add jackhammers, clouds of dust, extra committee meetings, flurries of budget drafts and grant applications, personnel issues, and untold new questions to the already considerable insanity involved in mounting plays. This is only Scott Kanoff's second production as artistic director for the State, a company he is new to in a city he is new to, and he's still having to deal with finding his way around an unfamiliar theatre, not to mention an unfamiliar theatre community, developing working relationships with his board and staff, figuring out who his audience is and how to connect with them, recovering from a first show that was less than enthusiastically received, and just getting his family settled and learning where to get a decent bagel in town while he's trying to direct a show he can be proud of and that will do well for his theatre. The economic pressures, the issues of programming, and especially the questions of relevance and of connecting with a community that are so much a part of Anton are all staring him in the face in a very profound way right now. The play represents an ideal opportunity to work through some of that, in a vehicle that lays his struggles and the theatre's struggles all out in the open, that talks about how hard the life in the theatre is today and, more importantly, why it still matters.

Of course, as the play makes clear, there was always the chance -- as there is with every theatrical production -- that despite all the talent and intelligence and dedication involved, the show wouldn't come off. The pieces wouldn't mesh, the artists wouldn't speak the same language, the story would lie flat, the message wouldn't ring true. That doesn't happen here -- we're treated to a consistently entertaining and insightful production -- and that is a tribute to Kanoff, as the kind of artist whose perseverance is celebrated in Anton. His work with this show proves that he has talent and skill, professionalism and a willingness to work, that should make him a valuable addition to this city and its theatre community. He gives us another piece of evidence that the contemporary stage has yet to fall in on itself. The theatre's light shines on. end story

Anton in Show Business runs through April 8 at the State Theater, 719 Congress. Call 472-5143 for info.

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