Friday, August 21, 2015

SCHOOLED and THE SCREENWRITER DIES OF HIS OWN FREE WILL: Two Smart and Funny Complementary Plays Stand Out at FringeNYC

Jim Shankman and Steven Mark Friedman
Photo by Hunter Canning

In the past few days, as I have sampled some of the entries that make up the head-spinning summer theater circus known as FringeNYC (200 shows, 1,100 performances, 16 days!), I happened upon two excellent plays that deal with the highly competitive and risky world of the professional screenwriter.

One of these, Schooled, by Lisa Lewis, is about two young and ambitious budding screenwriters — Claire and her boyfriend Jake — both students in an elite New York college writing program. The two are vying for the attention of their instructor, who holds the key to a grant that will fund only one of their potentially career-launching projects. Directed by James Kautz, the play is smart and often savagely funny (and well performed by Lilli Stein and Stephen Friedrich as the young couple and by Quentin MarĂ© as their cynical instructor) as it skewers the manipulative gamesmanship and misogyny that mark the territory of those who would be players in the film industry.   

At one point during Schooled, the instructor, Andrew, has a few choice words to say about screenwriters who eschew formulaic writing in order to offer up works of greater depth and substance.  “You know who makes art?” says Andrew.  “Retarded people. Really. It’s called outsider art. People who have extreme mental disabilities; they draw because they can’t help themselves. Everything else is about fame, getting paid and getting laid.”

I bring up this short, cutting speech from Schooled by way of introduction to another smart and funny play that is also having a brief run in the Fringe, called The Screenwriter Dies Of His Own Free Will. Written by Jim Shankman, it relates the story of a successful screenwriter named Willy (performed by the playwright), who is dying of cancer. He meets up with Gabe (Steven Mark Friedman), a studio head and an old friend from their Princeton days, in order to pitch his final screenplay, one that is exactly the kind of piece that Andrew is mocking in Schooled.  It is Willy’s artful farewell to the world.    

Willy is a mess as he enters Gabe’s office. He is “one toke over the line” on medical marijuana, and can barely complete a coherent sentence as he offers up his script. The play, well acted by its co-stars and nimbly directed by Craig J. George (who also provides the very clever audio design), deals with the mostly-out-of-control conversation between the two. Is Gabe really interested, or is he merely being polite to his former friend, whose obviously declining health scares him?  And is Willy really eager to turn over his final and most significant work to someone he views as an unimaginative studio hack? 

One of the things that make the play work so well as the pair hash things out is the way that Willy (or perhaps the playwright who is looking over his shoulder) manages to manipulate the conversation so that Gabe says things he does not mean to speak aloud, and is occasionally prevented from being heard when Willy is caught up in his own thoughts.  Viewing it in this light, you could say that The Screenwriter Dies Of His Own Free Will is an act of revenge by a real screenwriter/playwright who has an axe to grind with some of the Hollywood types he’s had to deal with during his career. Until he turns over his work to others, he is in complete control.  

The Screenwriter Dies Of His Own Free Will, which runs but 40 minutes, resembles the kind of short works that David Mamet excels at — literate, smart, and filled with rapid-fire and frequently laugh-out-loud-funny dialogue.

Mr. Shankman, the playwright, says that the version of the play being offered to Fringe audiences has been expanded into a full-length work that he hopes to have produced down the road. I can’t comment on the lengthier version, since I’ve not read it.  But I will say that, as it stands, this is a damn good one-act that is exactly the right length for the story it tells and the way in which Shankman tells it. So, let me try my hand at a little matchmaking.

Instead of stretching out the story, and thereby risking the loss of its perfect pacing, how about pairing it with Schooled?  That would make for a very interesting full evening of theater.  Think of the PR: “They met at the Fringe!”  Mr. Shankman?  Ms. Lewis?  Their agents?  

(How’s that for the art of the pitch?!!)

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