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The Money Shot

Neil LaBute's new comedy makes its world premiere at MCC Theater.

Gia Crovatin, Fred Weller, Callie Thorne, and Elizabeth Reaser in the world premiere of Neil LaBute's The Money Shot, directed by Terry Kinney, at MCC's Lucille Lortel Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Neil LaBute finds his latest foursome of grownups behaving badly in the Hollywood Hills where substance is sparse and The Money Shot is never too costly. He reunites with his reasons to be pretty director Terry Kinney at MCC Theater for the world premiere of his new comedy, which packs a stunning amount of intelligence into 100 minutes of delectable idiocy. A roomful of New Yorkers can relish in the movie-making world of mindless greed — though, if you listen hard enough between fits of laughter, no one walks away without their share of humble pie.

A series of eerie camera flashes sends us into a dinner party for four. The scene is a swanky outdoor patio overlooking the Los Angeles skyline — a flat, poster-like landscape that designer Derek McLane cleverly uses to foreshadow the depth of the impending conversation. A sinewy Hollywood star named Steve (Fred Weller), has commandeered the floor. Dressed by costume designer Sarah J. Holden in tight jeans and a leather jacket he could have pulled off 20 years ago, Steve is pretentiously recounting a recent conversation with his European film director. Karen (Elizabeth Reaser), costumed in a flowing navy gown, dramatically tosses her head back in laughter as Steve's knowing costar and a fellow member of the community she fondly calls "the talent." Steve's much younger and aptly named wife, Missy (Gia Crovatin), doesn't seem much to mind the inane conversation as she brainlessly twirls her long blonde locks, but Karen's significant other Bev (Callie Thorne), who dressed up for the occasion in a baggy T-shirt and yoga pants, is clearly fed up with the whole ordeal.

A few early hints suggest that this dignified summit was organized to discuss the terms of a certain love scene to be shot between Steve and Karen— a pair of equally desperate near-has-beens. However, before negotiations actually begin, we must plod through a few lovers quarrels, some politically incorrect anecdotes, and a couple of tiffs between a moronic Steve and Brown University graduate Bev over pointless facts, settled by the almighty truth of Answers.com. After a while, it seems all we've done is walk in circles and laugh at increasingly asinine and self-centered behavior. Yet the web of relationships LaBute weaves as he winds up this theatrical jack-in-the-box makes for fulfilling explosion once these so-called adults run dry of ways to dance around the matter at hand. After all, there are important choices to be made, and for the first time in their lives (with the possible exception of Bev), they will have to stand sturdily behind these choices and all the consequences they bring. As Steve sagely preaches, it's basic "C&A": cause and effect.

Known for his crass humor and emotionally volatile characters, LaBute does not give his actors any help in the sympathy department — though we'd expect nothing less from the playwright who made his Broadway debut with reasons to be pretty, which turned household items into weapons of mass destruction. The Money Shot goes to even greater extremes, with a dinner party that unravels with such velocity that the play could easily crumble right along with it. Luckily, the strong quartet of actors, combined with Kinney's perfect staging and sharp comic timing, holds the play firmly together, yet with a loose enough grip to allow the side-splitting comedy to breathe freely.

Reaser was sent into the trenches with only two weeks of rehearsal as an unexpected replacement. Yet, even with this disadvantage, she is perfection as Karen, a self-proclaimed Margo Channing with hardly enough clout to even be a washed-up starlet. Her faux-aristocratic (and easily insufferable) affectation is supported by sharp comic timing, which she showcases in an emotionally unhinged monologue (a LaBute specialty) lamenting L.A. traffic.

Though we question how a sturdy woman of substance like Bev ever came to fall in love a narcissist like Karen, Thorne delivers a strong performance as the resident straight man and a welcome foil for the asphyxiating stupidity filling the polluted city air. Her head-to-head verbal and eventually physical sparring matches with Weller, who lets loose with his chauvinistic alpha-male character, are live-action fantasies for every woman who would like to slap some sense into his abiding prepubescent wife. Crovatin does, however, seize her opportunity to stretch beyond the realm of ditsy blonde as Missy finds surprising wisdom amid the insanity — as we all do once the waters settle.

Answers.com is no match for the central dilemma of The Money Shot so decisions are few and far between. Yet we find that hiding behind nondecisions and empty words cannot circumvent the law of C & A.

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