There’s an old cliché about frustrated novelists becoming brilliant playwrights (Arthur Miller springs to mind). But what about the successful novelist who becomes a mediocre playwright? That seems to be the story of Tawni O’Dell. She attained the Holy Grail of American publishing in 2000 when her debut novel Back Roads was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Twenty-three years later, her play Pay the Writer is making its world premiere off-Broadway with a stellar cast that only partially redeems this underwhelming drama.
It’s about the relationship between novelist Cyrus Holt (Ron Canada) and his agent Bruston Fischer (Bryan Batt). They met in their 20s, when Bruston was a junior editor at Random House and Cyrus was fresh out of Vietnam and hawking his debut novel. A half-century later, Cyrus is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a staple of American literature syllabi, the most significant Black writer of the century with the possible exception of Toni Morrison. And Bruston has been by his side the entire way. “It’s the longest relationship either one of us has ever had,” Bruston beams.
We understand why when we meet Lana (Marcia Cross), Cyrus’s first wife (of four) and the mother of his children (Danielle J. Summons and Garrett Turner). Canada and Cross convey their mutual hostility (undergirded by a red-hot attraction) in scenes that are fiery and raw. They pick at each other’s emotional scabs, revealing the flowing blood beneath. And in Canada’s peevishly compelling aura, we get a solid impression of Cyrus as a volatile genius, so dedicated to his art that he regularly neglected everything else, including the people closest to him. Terminally ill and approaching death, Cyrus must now author an appropriate ending to his extraordinary life.
We witness this process in a tedious succession of two-person scenes that takes roughly two hours (no intermission) to complete. Cyrus says his farewells to loved ones and some unloved ones, like his French translator Jean Luc (Steven Hauck making a meal out of an amuse bouche) and a homeless Vietnam vet in Battery Park (Stephen Payne doing a similarly fine job in a wispy sketch of a role). It’s This Is Your Life for readers of Publishers Weekly.
Unfortunately, O’Dell still writes as if her only expense is ink on the page, leading to noticeable inefficiency in both casting and construction. Miles G. Jackson and Garrett Turner appear in one flashback scene as young Bruston and Cyrus, and then never again (although Turner makes a memorably sheepish turn as Cyrus’s son, Leo, later in the play). We never do learn what exactly Bruston had to do to get Cyrus in the door of a uniquely conservative and risk-averse industry that is always chasing last season’s bestseller. But we do witness the episode that nearly broke them, when Cyrus went to Hollywood to write the screenplay for the film adaptation of his own book, against the explicit advice of his agent.
It’s up to Batt to sell the underdeveloped aspects of this story, floating over narrative potholes with his effervescently gay comic timing. “I convinced Hawthorne to call it The Scarlet Letter instead of Slut on Fire,” he brags over the phone to an unnamed publisher before demanding that they add a zero to their offer, and we cannot help but laugh.
Director Karen Carpenter keeps a surprisingly taut pace for a script that leaps from scene to scene as if it was written for the screen rather than the stage. Part of this has to do with David Gallo’s set, which is mostly impressionistic backdrops of various city skylines (New York, Paris, LA) and simple downstage furniture. The one exception is Cyrus’s writing studio, which has been fully realized and decorated with stacks of conspicuously titled books that only exist in the world of the play (a doorstop edition of August Wilson’s Jitney must surely be printed in 72-point font and contain annotations by no fewer than five scholars). Every time this set piece lurches downstage, we hold our breaths, hoping it will complete its journey.
Christopher Akerlind’s competent lighting and Bill Toles’s understated sound design fill out the stage picture, although they never quite cover up the sound of stagehands frantically assembling the next set, or the occasional shadow of that action passing over the backdrop. David C. Woolard’s literary chic costumes do the job, conveying the wealth that Cyrus’s work has brought his family without going overboard.
None of it is enough to make Pay the Writer a story audiences will much care about. For all the personality the actors bring to their characters, this is still a play about a writer and his agent — navel-gazing inside baseball of the worst variety. Like the rebooted Carrie Bradshaw series And Just Like That…, money is never a serious issue for anyone, despite flimsy efforts to suggest as much about Bruston. And Cyrus’s death is a foregone conclusion from the earliest scenes, making the ensuing two hours feel like a low-stakes march to the grave. Our central novelist may have been frustrated by all the notes studio executives had about his screenplay, but one suspects they probably had several good points.