Bess Wohl Takes the Temperature of a Film Set, and the World, in Continuity
The Small Mouth Sounds playwright's latest makes its world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club.
In her last play in New York, Small Mouth Sounds, Bess Wohl, with the invaluable assistance of director Rachel Chavkin, managed to convey an amazing amount of character drama and sharp humor through a minimum of dialogue — a stylistically daring choice, but appropriate for a drama set at a silent retreat. If only her characters in her newest work, Continuity, also directed by Chavkin, had been constrained by a similar restriction on talk. Instead, this world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club's New York City Center Stage II is, for all the chatter, only intermittently engaging, and never fully realizes the grand philosophical statement that its more heavy-handed lines of dialogue seem to be making.
Wohl's setting this time around is a film shoot, on the ice-floe set (designed by Adam Rigg, fake snow and all, with accompanying immersive sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman) of a Hollywood disaster picture being shot in the desert of New Mexico. The immediate goal of the movie's director, Sundance-winning indie filmmaker Maria (Rosal Colón, perpetually on edge), is to successfully capture a dramatic confrontation scene with three of the film's stars: superficially "woke" diva Nicole (Megan Ketch, stopping just short of a bubble-headed caricature), aspiring action star Jake (Alex Hurt, endearingly lunkheaded), and young Nigerian-British actress Lily (Jasmine Batchelor, hiding frustration under submissiveness).
This is Maria's first big-budget project — and from the outset, it already has the makings of a disaster, with the film's screenwriter, and Maria's ex-boyfriend, Caxton (Darren Goldstein, hypermasculine yet sensitive), having already substantially reworked the script to accommodate studio heads' audience-pandering wishes. Naturally, the fraught shoot, combined with the characters' clashing personalities, fuel interpersonal tensions in hilarious and sobering ways.
Movies about filmmaking already belong to their own subgenre, and though it's novel to see that process reenacted onstage, for those who have seen films like Singin' in the Rain, 8½, and Adaptation., much of the behind-the-scenes drama in Continuity will seem like old hat, as will some of the archetypes the characters represent. Thankfully, Wohl manages to find bits of humanity in even the dimmest of characters, allowing everyone moments in which they show us more sympathetic sides. And her sense of humor remains as idiosyncratic as ever, especially when the shoot's long-suffering PA (Garcia, stealing every scene they are in with the skill of a silent comedian) enters the scene, turning each effort to tidy up the set into a life-or-death aria.
In stark contrast to the nearly mute PA, there's Larry (Max Baker, professorially garrulous), who turns out to be more than the film's scientific adviser, but also the mouthpiece for all the questions about artistic responsibility that Wohl aims to pose with Continuity. Unfortunately, most of the other characters also come off as mere mouthpieces for Wohl's timely issues: film-industry sexual and racial discrimination, toxic masculinity, global warming, and more. Maria represents the likes of Ava DuVernay, Patty Jenkins, and other indie filmmakers who have recently been hired by major studios to helm Hollywood blockbusters without any previous experience working with huge budgets. She warns Caxton, whom she suspects of sleeping with Nicole, "It's a different time. You can't just, like, throw your dick around anymore." Lily laments how, even in this supposedly more racially inclusive moment, she's still being cast in token roles, and how she suspects Hollywood is putting people of color "in charge so they can feel good about themselves, but nobody actually believes we're up to the job."
And, of course, there's climate change, a scientific fact that still inspires skepticism in some quarters, leading a frustrated Larry to openly question the whole point of the fictional film that everyone's working on, calling it "just another distraction, a way of not seeing the truth of what's happening." All of these ideas are certainly worth raising and arguing about, but in Continuity, Wohl appears to be in such a rush to get her points across that she creates a soapbox instead of a drama. Despite the efforts of the all-around excellent cast to make these characters come off as human beings, Continuity aims at worthy targets but barely grazes any.