Brian Morvant, Drew Hildebrand, and Meredith Holzman in Screen Play. (Photo © Max Ruby)
Brian Morvant, Drew Hildebrand, and Meredith Holzman
in Screen Play. (Photo © Max Ruby)
A.R. Gurney does not like George W. Bush, not one little bit! This is no secret to those who saw last year's scathing comedy Mrs. Farnsworth, in which Gurney essentially accused our current Commander-in-Chief of some particularly heinous -- and criminal -- behavior in his youth. Now the Bush-bashing continues in Screen Play, Gurney's consistently clever and frequently uproarious one-act, which marks his third collaboration with downtown's ever-edgy Flea Theater (following O Jerusalem and Mrs. Farnsworth).

While it certainly helps to be a Democrat to enjoy this latest diversion, there's an even more significant requirement for full appreciation of Screen Play: a working knowledge of Casablanca. Gurney has used the script for the classic 1942 film as the template for his plot, with delightful results. Indeed, Screen Play is actually presented as a staged reading of a film script "that is too dangerous to produce." The year is 2015 and our anti-hero is Nick, who runs his late father's bar in Buffalo, New York. The bar has suddenly become a hot spot for Americans fleeing -- or hoping to flee -- the U.S. and cross the border into Canada; the unnamed Republican administration has seriously curtailed some citizens' right to leave, making "letters of transit" that allow people to travel the world unencumbered a major black-market commodity.

Who should walk into the bar one fateful night, hoping to purchase such letters of transit from a rather sleazy character named Renzo, but Nick's ex-flame Sally and her husband, Walter Wellman. He's an influential TV newscaster (and former Republican) who is being watched closely by the U.S. government, most notably Senator Abner Patch, a conservative, Bible-toting Senator with a secret. As the embers between Sally and Nick -- who met as volunteers on the 2000 Al Gore campaign -- begin to burn again, issues of loyalty and betrayal come to the forefront.

As political satire, Screen Play is extremely tame and unlikely to change anyone's mind about anything; but Gurney's script is often good for a laugh, with jabs at targets as diverse as Charlie Rose and The Phantom of the Opera. And as the Casablanca references come faster and more furiously, it becomes an enjoyable guessing game as to how the playwright will use some of the movie's most famous lines and plot devices. Once again, the directorial reins are held by the Flea's artistic director, Jim Simpson, who moves things along swiftly and smoothly. But unlike Mrs. Farnsworth -- in which Simpson employed the star-studded trio of Sigourney Weaver (Mrs. Simpson), John Lithgow, and Danny Burstein -- the acting here is done by The Bats, the Flea's resident company of young actors.

The company members are extremely talented. As the central figures in the triangle, Drew Hildebrand brings the right brand of disillusionment and still-buried hope to Nick, Meredith Holtzman is a fetching Sally, and Brian Morvant is properly pompous as Walter. Kevin Moore is highly amusing in a series of supporting roles; and though Raushanah Simmons is underused as the bar's piano player, Myrna, she makes each of her scenes count thanks to her stunning presence and her lovely singing voice. But it's John Fico who steals the show, snarling away as the self-satisfied Patch. Let's hope that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship between these young thespians and playwrights everywhere.