We're at Artists First Management & Productions, newly independent from a larger agency and scrambling desperately for clients. This is one of hundreds of such ambitious startups around New York City where capital runs low, chaos runs high, and Type-A personalities run amok. Business partners and best buds Merry (Jennifer Carta) and Ilene (Mandy Steckelberg) pursue the American Dream relentlessly--wheedling, coddling, and starving their personal lives in the process. The more even-keeled Ilene muddles through without incurring any deep emotional scars, but the higher-strung Merry becomes less and less merry as Artists First's bottom line bottoms out.
It's a juicy role, and Carta articulates every aspect of the character as written--an intriguing mix of generosity and selfishness, giddiness and despair--while throwing in a few grace notes of her own. Tall and Geena Davis-pretty, expressive of eyes and voice, she gives fresh, quirky line readings, changing the rhythms unexpectedly and seemingly making up the dialogue as she goes along. She defines Merry's emotional decline expertly, playing the character's take-charge office personality against her messy vulnerability with her family and an ever-changing roster of boyfriends until the two sides of Merry are both unable to cope.
Artists First boasts two star clients, up-and-coming leading ladies whose careers are somewhat in competition, and Mandel humorously captures the stroking and manipulation that are required in the care and feeding of such shark-like creatures. Dialogue is his strength; while few lines are genuinely quotable, they have the snap of truth and, occasionally, the weight of subtle subtext. When a talent manager excitedly describes a would-be client as "B-plus-slash-A-list," or when another tries to score a pair of comps off a nasty box-office manager, you get a glimpse into the grand illusions that nurture the bottom-fishers of the entertainment industry and their tiny odds of success. Mandel seems to be saying, "There's no business like show business--thank God."
The playwright, who maintains a parallel career as a corporate headhunter, knows about office politics: false versus real chumminess, the careful protection of turf, the discomfiting atmosphere after an emotional outburst. And he deftly undermines your assumptions about characters. A spoiled movie actor of the Brad Pitt variety (Benim Foster) turns out to be a genuinely nice guy. When Merry keeps postponing phoning her mother, we ascribe it to her egocentricity; but Mom turns out to be a cold bitch. The veteran executrix who ran Artist First's parent company is described throughout as a dragon lady; but when she appears late in Act Two, in the formidable person of the aptly named Norma Fire, she turns out to be...a dragon lady. Smart double-cross!
Mandy's and Ilene's underlings are an authentic bunch, too. There's the straight-arrow, yuppie attorney with too many debts and a shrewish wife (Steve Cell), the hyper queen who thrives on crisis and victimization (a funny Dustin Tucker), the slacker receptionist who regards everyone with sulky contempt (Kelly Overton). Their interactions with one another are true and lively, generally conveyed in quick-blackout vignettes that may remind you of early Jules Feiffer or the better office sitcoms. Unfortunately, it seems the talent business is conducted mostly over the phone, and that is where Mandel commits a key dramaturgical error: At least half the play consists of phone conversations with unseen characters. The stage teems with corded phones, cordless phones, cell phones, and headset phones that make the cast look like they're in Rent.
This severely restricts the stage action. After all, how do you block performers on phones? I don't know, but director Lily Warren chains them to their desks and chairs so that whole scenes are virtually motionless. Worse, since the voices at the other end of the line are pretaped, the sound man is saddled with hundreds or maybe thousands of cues, and the timing goes off. Stage actors shouldn't have to suffer through seconds of dead space while some techie fiddles with the knobs, but that happens constantly here.
As the fortunes of Artists First flag, so does the energy of the play, and the second act rolls gently downhill. Finally, it falls off a cliff when Mandel caps the evening with three last-minute plot twists so melodramatic and implausible that some of the good will built up during the first act evaporates. The attempted show-biz satire--Merry, through an unconvincingly motivated act of violence, becomes a media darling--feels cheap, and the ending reduces her to a cultural stereotype, the can-do career gal who really just wants to be loved.