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According to Goldman — Act II Playhouse

Goldman interiorDavid Bradley and an excellent cast of Tony Braithwaite, Susan Riley Stevens, and Luke Brahdt have elevated Bruce Graham’s play about a successful screenwriter and his promising protégé from a good, solid piece to an intricate revealing look at several subjects all of which revolve in their individual ways around the pragmatic vs. the perfect or compromise vs. genuine artistry. Throughout the play, you can hear Graham’s distinctive voice in Braithwaite’s Gavin Miller, a writer whose days as a hot commodity in Hollywood have dried up, causing Gavin to give in to his wife’s wish to return to her Eastern hometown where her parents are in decline, and she can garden while Gavin teaches screenwriting at a nearby university.

The classes Graham plots for Miller reveal how much the playwright knows about composition, writing for hire, and writing for a specific audience. I would advise any writer from any form to rush to Ambler to catch one of the final performances of “According to Goldman” just to benefit from Graham’s succinct, capsulized lesson in what writing is and how, if it’s your interest, you sell it.

The tutorial is not all that makes Bradley’s production so special. Tony Braithwaite, a veteran teacher, not only knows how to negotiate scenes playing to a classroom, he takes that talent and his patented delivery, perfect for Graham’s flippant quips and observations, to entertain grandly while presenting a full character. For someone who always garnered praise, Braithwaite has to be congratulated for getting better and better in his art as time passes. Yes, I mention his “patented delivery,” but Braithwaite has disciplined it so that its serves his characters, For the last year, from “Hotel Suite” through “Rounding Third,” and now in “According to Goldman,” I see a strong Tony Braithwaite who puts his character first and molds his style to the man he’s playing rather than giving a Braithwaite touch to his role of the moment. The growth is admirable, and it proceeds at a perfect time when the deeper Tony Braithwaite can give texture to Gavin Miller, a character who is in Braithwaite’s wheelhouse but whom he takes to a higher level than he might have five seasons ago.

Braithwaite’s Gavin is not only a deft comic turn. The actor captures the turmoil going inside a man who has left the place and job he loves but hasn’t really resigned himself to retirement from Hollywood or writing one more hit film.

Not that Gavin in an artist or that he claims to be (at least in his oeuvre to date). He is a smart, competent man who created a character, a comic talking dragon, that was the darling of a generation of children.

Ah, but Gavin is an artist at heart and In intention. You hear it in his pointers about writing, where you also hear his pragmatism and common sense. Gavin is also appreciator of film. An aficionado myself, I reveled in his comments about classic movies. Even the argument about which is better, Gene Kelly or Fred Astraire. (I, too, lean towards the Astaire camp, but usually I answer, “Why choose?” when that question is posed.) I am also eternally grateful that in giving the years of cinema classics Miller cites, Graham uses the year the movie was released, the correct year, instead of the corruption, fomented by Google and other web sites that don’t employ experts, that places a film in the year awards for it are given out, which is actually by necessity a year later. (Yes, Bruce, I kvelled when Gavin days “The Best Years of Our Lives” in from 1946, which is accurate, as opposed to 1947 which the nudniks at Google would tell us and most sheep will believe.)

“According to Goldman” is a wise play in the way it deals with ambition, desire, artistry, commercialism, cooperation behind husband and wife, education, prodigy, and betrayal. It is a comedy in which Graham’s views of the world emerge in small, hilarious doses. It is also a sharp study of a man who will never really give up getting back to the fray of Hollywood meeting, deprecating the execs he’s salving by making concessions, and looking for some adulation from the class he’s teaching 3,000 miles from the Warners lot.

Adding to the study of Gavin and his dilemma in retirement is the actual story “According to Goldman” revolves around, Gavin’s relationship with a student in his class who “dresses like the kid in ‘Witness'” (plain white shirt buttoned to the top over black pants), is being forced into religious mission work by his domineering father, and has a strong knack for storytelling that Gavin notices, and envies, immediately.

Here is where Gavin has to do a careful dance with the precision of Astaire and Kelly combined. He has to entertain notions he can be happy as an academic in a suburb that isn’t called Brentwood, or even Encino, he has to appease his wife who is claiming her 24 years of directing the marriage after indulging Gavin’s 24, and he has to find a way to collaborate with his student, the ‘Witness’ kid, so it appears as if he’s helping with honing and marketing instead of taking over and glomming the credit.

With both his wife and the student, Gavin has his match. “According to Goldman” makes that clear via the strong performances of Stevens and Brahdt who conspire with Braithwaite to make Bradley’s ensemble formidably strong.

NealBoxStevens’s Melanie had a full professional life as a CPA, something Graham makes use of in a well-conceived scene in which the Melanie explains family finances, which are in great shape, to Gavin. Melanie has longed for domestic simplicity, and now she has it. She can discuss gardening and cooking with neighbors, share her talents with Gavin by keeping a nice home and preparing excellent meals, and have a fairly peaceful, pressureless life, her parents’ health notwithstanding. Melanie is content and wants Gavin to be. She also has a different, more sensitive kind of honest streak from Gavin’s. Gavin sees and talks about truth perceptively, like the keen observer he is. He can spot and lampoon a foible at 1,000 yards. He instinctively knows when something works literarily or cinematically. Melanie looks for honesty, and Stevens gives dramatic and theatrical weight to Bradley’s production by her clear, unaccusing, yet guilt-exposing way of calling attention to the morals and scruples of a given situation.

Stevens’s performance is just plain lovely. You see the goodness and wisdom in Melanie from the start. You also see her desire for ease and companionship for her and Gavin’s later years. Melanie has run in her own corporate rat race. She’s witnessed Gavin jumping through the hoops of the movie business. In the 24 years of which she has claimed control, she wants quiet normality. She wants to have a simple small-town life, and she wants Gavin to call the head of his university department to commit to a full schedule of teaching. As much to get him out of the house more hours of the day as to secure the lifestyle she’s chosen.

Luke Brahdt’s acting of Jeremiah Collins — not Jerry, Jeremiah — is as on the mark as Braithwaite’s and Stevens’s. Brahdt made a strong impression last year as the one performer who could not only withstand Mauckingbird’s pitiful production of “Hot and Cole” but emerge from it as a performer one would want to see again. And again. As Jeremiah, who has been raised in missions all over the world, in Africa and the American ghetto among other places, and who has been forced to adhere to his father’s unflagging religious beliefs and codes, Brahdt maintains that look of a dog that’s been beaten so frequently, physically and spiritually, he maintains a wary, untrusting expression no matter how much he’s accepted and out of danger.

Brahdt’s Jeremiah is naïve but he is also sensitive about noticing his environment. He loves movies, especially the black-and-white classics that feed Gavin, because they were his salvation, his respite, of sorts in Africa where someone had an old TV and tuned in vintage MGM, Warners, and RKO productions. Aside from the movies, Jeremiah’s life was being badgered by his father to be a strict follower of his faith or being the lone kid with the soccer ball who the other kids beat up before proceeding to have a football match with the defeated boy’s ball.

Jeremiah is grateful for Gavin’s attention, especially when it means an invitation to the Miller home and time with the sympathetic and cuisine-savvy Melanie.

Gavin and Jeremiah forge a relationship based primarily on writing well and adoring movies. Of course, as Jeremiah’s screenplay, about a boy growing up in Africa, develops and turns out to be really good, Gavin sees his chance to return triumphantly to Hollywood. He negotiates co-writer’s credit.

Here Graham shows he can follow his own precepts for dramatic writing and comes up with a neat and satisfying twist. “According to Goldman” is an example of the structure Graham delineates in Gavin’s classes. It’s difficult for one to do as one says, and it’s a tribute to Graham’s wit and discipline that he manages so brilliantly in putting his pointers so deftly to work in the play in which he enumerates them.

Melanie realizes immediately what Gavin is doing and protests. Jeremiah also sees his movie is being commandeered, and from his point of view, corrupted by Gavin. The scenes that ensue give a moving bite to “According to Goldman” and add to the overall satisfaction of Bradley’s production.

Colin McIlvaine’s set gibed well with how one would imagine Melanie to decorate. The flying blackboard in the classroom scenes is a great touch. Lily Fossner’s lighting enhanced the mood of Bradley’s production as well as indicating time of day.

I was lukewarm about “According to Goldman” when I saw it at the Philadelphia Theatre Company a decade or so back. Now I am a fan. David Bradley’s production made me appreciate Graham’s content more. It was less facile and more immediate than the PTC staging. Braithwaite, Stevens, and Brahdt brought all to vivid, genuine life. There is a lot to savor and think about in “According to Goldman,” and Bradley and company bring it all to the fore in magnificent style. Brahdt even gets to impress as an Astaire-like song and dance man. Graham whimsically, but cleverly, includes some musical passage, and Brahdt’s rendition of Gershwin’s “I Can’t Be Bothered Now,” an Astaire number from “Damsel in Distress,” is a lollapalooza. (Note about “Damsel in Distress: It was made in 1937 when Ginger Rogers decided she wanted more varied roles, and Astaire had to find a new partner, and RKO had the inspiration to team him with Joan Fontaine, who was fairly new, got fourth billing, and couldn’t dance. Second and third billing went to George Burns and Gracie Allen who stole the movie. There’s one scene is which Gracie goes through one of her patented riffs, and George says, in character, “You just made that up, didn’t you.?” I always wanted to know if that was an ad lib or in P.G. Wodehouse’s script. Luckily, I got to ask George Burns, who told me, “No, Gracie would go off-script all the time. I would just follow. I guess George (George Stevens, the director) liked Gracie’s routine and my answer and left them in.”)

Oh, the title. Movie buff that he is, Graham gives homage to one of the smartest, tautest screenwriters of all time, William Goldman (who also wrote a masterpiece of theater criticism, “The Season”), and to one of his most famous and astute remarks, “Nobody knows anything.”

“According to Goldman” runs through Sunday, October 11, at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, in Ambler, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. No performance is scheduled for Saturday, October 10 when oenophile Philip Silverstone performs his one-man show at 8 p.m. Tickets to “According to Goldman” range from $36 to $29 and can be obtained by calling 215-654-0200 or by visiting www.act2.org.

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