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Annie Potts in Diva
(Photo © Craig Schwartz)
Howard Gould's Diva is the latest in a line of plays -- including Betrayal and Merrily We Roll Along -- in which the scenes are placed in reverse chronological order. Once again, it becomes apparent why many of these plays fail. As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

The diva of the title, spoiled TV star Deanna Denninger (Annie Potts), is initially presented as such a dried-up, bitter woman that by the time we meet a less corrupted version of her in the second act, we've been so turned off that it's difficult for us to ever connect with the character. As the play opens, Deanna is starring in a hit sitcom, but it eventually becomes obvious that pure talent wasn't what led her to success. She thrives on her past film career as "America's Sweetheart," not to mention her sexual relationships with such Hollywood bigwigs as Martin Scorsese and Warren Beattty. Most of the acclaim for her show has been deservedly bestowed on its writer/producer, Issac (Todd Warring), and the other cast members. Frustrated and spoiled, Deanna lashes out at Isaac like a pit bull with rabies. Her co-executive producer (Richard Kline), her agent (Patrick Fabian), and her lapdog husband (Robert Farrior) kowtow to her every whim as she indulges in the kind of outrageous behavior that only a diva is allowed.

From that first scene, we slide backwards in time to discover the machinations that turned each character into a typically cold-blooded Hollywood archetype. By the time their veneer has been removed and we finally meet fleshed-out people, it's too little, too late. I have no doubt that Deanna's shenanigans reflect those of certain real-life TV stars who believe their own press and convince themselves that they generate every witty line they speak. But just because behavior is based in truth doesn't mean that it plays well in the theater.

Another problem with Diva is that all of the men are punching bags for Deanna, which lends the play a somewhat misogynistic tone. Had a few companionate female characters been added to the mix -- Deanna is the only woman onstage -- perhaps this wouldn't appear to be a man's world being fascistically ruined by a domineering woman. Yet another problem is that the talents of Deanna and Issac are never displayed; we almost need to see a clip from the sitcom to judge for ourselves.

Director David Lee proved adept at farce during his years on Frasier, but his pacing of Diva's first scene is too slow. For this script to work, we shouldn't have time to ruminate on the characters' maliciousness. Fortunately, the production design is flawless. Yael Pardess's sets -- some of them detailed and realistic, others stylized -- float in and out seamlessly. Costume designer Jean Pierre Dorleac has a great eye for colors; his dresses, sundresses, and suits are gorgeously coordinated and perfectly convey the characters' obsessions with personal style.

The actors try to make the most of the script. Potts gives Deanna more dignity than the character deserves and also manages to find the humor in her lunacy. Warring has his moments when sparring with Potts, and there is genuine chemistry between the two, but his final tirade in the last scene seems synthetic. Fabian is the true gem here, playing the duplicitous, smarmy agent to the hilt. He's simply hilarious -- but, unfortunately, the same can't be said for Diva in general.

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