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Theatre in Review: Pay the Writer (Pershing Square Signature Theatre)

Marcia Cross, Bryan Batt, Ron Canada. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

As a novelist, Tawni O'Dell has scaled the best-seller list and been welcomed into the golden circle of Oprah's Book Club. As a playwright, she has a long way to go before similar accolades come her way. Her 2019 drama, When It Happens to You, was a painfully awkward memoir about a family trauma and its aftermath, using a half-dramatized, half-lecture format; seeing it, I kept wishing she had put her experiences into prose, the medium where, surely, she is most comfortable. Then again, maybe not: Pay the Writer is a rambling, unfocused, undramatic account of the torments of being a successful novelist. Well, write what you know, I suppose, although, since O'Dell is not an aging, ailing Black man ravaged by Norman Mailer-ish excesses, she may be stretching things a bit. This probably accounts for the unremitting tone of falsity that underlines the play's action.

Indeed, the playwright throws at the stage any number of characters and situations unsupported by sufficient exposition and/or solid psychological insight. Chief among them is Cyrus Holt, a best-selling author with a couple of National Book Awards and a Pulitzer Prize to his credit, along with a big European following. He is also a recovering alcoholic with a trail of broken marriages and an unseen "child bride" who is the butt of several distasteful jokes. Moving in and out of his orbit are Bruston Fischer, his long-suffering agent and one-man gay lonely-hearts club; Cyrus' ex-wife Lana, who resurfaces after a twenty-year absence; Jean-Luc, the cartoon Frenchman -- Those scarves! That accent! -- who jealously guards his role as Cyrus' translator; Leo, Cyrus' son, a well-dressed blank who appears to have no interests or personal life of his own; and Cyrus' daughter Gigi, unhappily married to a sports star and nursing a grudge against her self-absorbed father.

Because Cyrus is dying, the play devolves into a series of lengthy, often mawkish, farewell scenes. (A bit of intrigue is raised about his new novel, which he refuses to show to Bruston, but the point is left to languish until near the end when it figures in the tear-stained windup.) Oddly, nobody onstage ever lives up to his or her reputation: The retiring, oracular Cyrus is hard to square with the figure seen in flashbacks: the egotistical young comer who dismisses Toni Morrison as having "potential" and the dissolute screenwriter on a 24/7 bender with a bimbo named Vanity ("Hollywood has destroyed many a great novelist," Bruston sagely notes, in case you haven't heard.) Gigi, whom, we are repeatedly told, is a holy terror, turns out to be an unremarkable case of early middle-aged discontent. O'Dell can't begin to explain how Bruston, a shy closet case in the 1980s, morphs into an Andrew Wylie-style shark; in a particularly bizarre bit, we are told that, despite the roster of best-sellers on his client list, he can't afford to buy his apartment because he was once bilked by a boyfriend who, adding insult to injury, tried to push him off a cliff. Too often in Pay the Writer, life imitates pulp fiction.

The play is especially weak at convincing us that Cyrus is a great literary voice. His most famous quote, "A bigot picks a color, but hatred is colorblind," isn't the sort of thing to get them tingling at The New York Review of Books. He also delivers several mouthfuls that cause one character or another to say, "That was good," urging him to write it down; apparently, nobody in this crowd reads much. Then there's the play's idea of wit: Lara, confronting her ex in a Vietnamese restaurant, cracks, "Hello, Cy. Is that Mi Quang all over your crotch or are you just glad to see me?" Bruston, caught in the crossfire between Cy and Lana, says, "I was in some kind of competition, and Cyrus was the prize? I would've preferred a tiara." Yes, like all the gays.

Under Karen Carpenter's listless direction, the actors often pause and look into the middle distance, savoring the wisdom of their thoughts. As Cy, Ron Canada brings a bearish presence and resonant voice to a character that doesn't make much sense. Bryan Batt struggles to make something out of Bruston, one of those gay clich├ęs who crack wise through their tears. The busy television actress Marcia Cross throws herself into the role of Lara, although one never really believes that she and Cy were passionate, self-destructive lovers.

Scenic designer David Gallo appears to have thrown all his resources into one of the play's many locations, Cy's book-lined attic retreat. It's a solid achievement but the other sets look starkly underfurnished, leaving Christopher Akerlind with surprisingly little to light. David C. Woolard's costumes are pretty good at denoting the differences in men's couture between 1980 and today. Bill Toles' sound design includes some nice jazzy underscoring and a handful of well-executive effects.

At an intermissionless two hours, Pay the Writer seems to go on interminably, its depiction of publishing-world intrigues and family dysfunctions proving to be equally unconvincing. Given O'Dell's career, you'd think that the world of letters would be what she knows best. You'd think, wouldn't you? --David Barbour

(21 August 2023)

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