Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
“Big Night” at the Douglas: Lighthearted Tragedy Stumbles
It’s not a new topic, but the superficiality of the film industry seems an easy and thus fairly constant pick as the foundation for an examination of modern ethics. The entire concept of what one is willing to sacrifice in the way of personal integrity for fame and a hefty paycheck plays well when focused on the heightened atmosphere of Hollywood. Now at the Douglas one finds this comparatively standard set-up paired with tragedy – a mixture which proves sometimes rather awkward.
Paul Ridnick’s “Big Night”, receiving its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, deals with the nerves and ethical wrestlings of a career actor suddenly made famous by an Oscar nomination. As such he is potentially in line for big money, but must now follow the kinds of rules agents and studios make when offering such opportunities. We come upon him preparing for the ceremony and being schooled on this by his very comic, but very direct agent.
Enter his nephew, a trans young man passionate about LGBTQ rights and insistent that his uncle speak to this issue in his acceptance speech. Enter his mother with news and a stand of her own, centered around a Pulitzer Prize-winning author she brings along with her. And then, just as they are about to leave for the ceremony, the actor’s partner – also a gay activist – is wrapped up in a tragedy which overshadows the Oscars, the actor Michael’s ambitions, and all the rest.
Brian Hutchison plays Michael as a man both startled by his own sudden fame and afraid of the balancing act he is now supposed to play. As such, he centers the action at several points. Tom Phelan gives the nephew that particular intensity of youth which cannot countenance compromise. Luke Macfarlane, as the partner who has been through a terrible experience, brings the trauma and the shock with him onto the stage in ways which are very moving.
Yet the most memorable performances come from Max Jenkins, whose flittingly gay agent spreads energy all around the room, Mendie Malick as the Michael’s commandingly stylish Jewish mother, and Kecia Lewis as the worldly-wise author who brings the aura of calm as a woman whose familiarity with fame balances the newness of Michael’s.
Director Walter Bobbie keeps all these people in motion on John Lee Beatty’s beautiful set, keeping this rather talky play as lively as one can. Still, the play needs to be worked on. As the storyline juxtaposes tragedy, the role of the famous, and the silliness of Oscar-based nerves, it never settles itself long enough on any one of these. Indeed, once the seriousness takes over – as it must – the playwright seems uncomfortable leaving it there, choosing instead to head back toward silliness just when the chance for a lingering profundity is possible.
Still, in its own occasionally silly way, “Big Night” has something to say, and the characters up on that stage are attractive and interesting to listen to. To some extent, it offers takes on issues which need to be noticed. Now, if only it could be comfortable going deep.
What “Big Night” When: through October 8, 8 p.m Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., in Culver City How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org