In tug-of-war with Hollywood, writer holds onto his truth
In an age where writers are publicly flogged for stretching the truth, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has a faultless strategy—distend it beyond recognition and call it fictional comedy.
The playwright’s exuberant, albeit frothy effort, “Based on a Totally True Story,” certainly lives up to its clever title. It’s the semi-autobiographical saga of Ethan Keene (Carson Elrod), an incidentally gay playwright whose work gets optioned for a movie. Just as his lifelong dream is about to become a reality, his relationships with his boyfriend, Michael (Pedro Pascal), and his father (Michael Tucker) verge on nightmare.
Ethan’s day job creating new adventures for “The Flash” mirrors Aguirre-Sacasa’s real-life vocation penning “Spider-man” for Marvel Comics. Perhaps he swapped characters because “The Flash” is lesser known and boasts a superpower the hyper-achiever Ethan admires—with the power to run at speeds so swift he can be in two places at once.
A trick that would be mighty handy, since Ethan’s theater/ comic book life is in New York and the movie biz is in LA. Or since his parents’ marriage is on the rocks in Philly and his liaison with Michael is foundering in Manhattan.
At regular intervals, Ethan’s plucky producer, Mary Ellen—played with acerbic panache by Kristine Nielsen—calls to hound the 28-year-old newbie with extensive notes to make his story more palatable to a mass audience. Ethan realizes all too late he’s struck a Faustian deal with her.
Under the direction of Michael Bush, the staging is brisk and inventive. Although much of the dialogue is spoken into cell phones, emotional connections stay strong, often because characters stand mere inches from each other. Funny how ring tones are as annoying onstage as they are in the theater.
Perhaps intended as a snide commentary on Hollywood and the infiltration of commerce within art, more brand names are dropped here than in an episode of “Queer Eye.” The boyfriends shop for Final Draft software at the Apple Store in Soho. Ethan meets his despondent Dad at Sears and later takes a meeting at the HBO offices. Michael is a culture critic for the Village Voice. Corporate logos figure prominently in the sleek, multi-screened set designed by Anna Louizos.
Names such as Anderson Cooper, Nicole Kidman, and Michael Cunningham spout shamelessly from characters’ mouths.
Manhattan insiders get to feel good about themselves when they recognize the litany of gay-friendly landmarks that pepper the dialogue—Equinox gym, Film Forum, Kim’s Video, Better Burger, Doma, and Java Boy. The boys meet at a Scissor Sisters concert at Irving Plaza. The band’s infectious tunes, booming at the top of each act, set a perfect pitch for the play.
The crashing sound of so many dropped names, however, muffles the real voice of the play. I wonder if these businesses underwrote production costs to have their names plugged.
Self-indulgence aside, the play works overtime to lob a whimsical spin on old themes we’ve heard a thousand times before—success can be fleeting; honesty is the best policy; the truth stinks. Love hurts.
Mary Ellen, who gets the best lines, tells Ethan, “The hottest script today is tomorrow’s lunch wrapper.” Later, she quips, “Honesty is an overrated virtue.”
Carson Elrod, seen in “Reckless” and the 2001 queer flick, “Kissing Jessica Stein,” is endearingly convincing in the demanding role of likable fussbudget. His energetic hand wrings, shoulder shrugs, and facial tics serve well to amplify the wry dialogue.
Lending a much-needed anchor to the proceedings is veteran actor Michael Tucker, who you’ll instantly recognize from “LA Law.” He works a mean Philadelphia accent to make Ethan’s dad even more authentic. Curiously, Ethan miraculously dropped his accent when he moved to Manhattan.
Blond, muscle-bound Erik Heger plays multiple roles including Ethan’s “Yo, bro” boss, the queen at Apple Store, and the “Hot LA Guy.”
I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say that Aguirre-Sacasa clearly modeled Ethan not so much on the heroes from his comic books, but on the heroic author Jo March from “Little Women.”
Regrettably, you can’t watch this production and not think of another recent gay-themed farce about retooling a play for Hollywood, “The Little Dog Laughed,” which was even better. The conniving, caustic über-agent played by Julie White in “Little Dog” could out-scheme Nielsen’s Mary Ellen with one cell-phone-holding hand tied behind her back.
“Based on a Totally True Story” is, improbably, the latest offering from the Manhattan Theatre Club, progenitor of such heavyweights as “Rabbit Hole,” “Doubt,” and “Proof.” Somehow, the work, which feels like a Fringe Festival crowd-pleaser, might be more at home at an edgier venue downtown, like the Rattlestick Theatre in the West Village, where Aguirre-Sacasa’s next play, called “Dark Matters,” is scheduled to be staged.