Their goal is commercial, not artistic. Three disparate but successful novelists, urged by their shared agent, the unseen Gaby, agree to merge their celebrities to produce a sure-fire bestseller. We never learn the title of the fictional project or fully what it is about in the world premiere of Garrett Heater’s Playing God, the Covey Theatre Company production now at the Mulroy Civic Center’s Bevard Community Room. Not all the three know each other, and neither have they all read each other’s work.
The plan is to have them put the narrative together round-robin, where A starts a passage and then sends it on to B, who picks up where A left off, perhaps changing a line or two, and then moving forward. The conflict of personalities alone makes a good premise for comedy, and there are many laughs, but this is no romp in the park. The loneliness of the act of writing, and the well of pain all creators draw from, mean that Playing God is a dark and thoughtful comedy.
As playwright, director, costumer and set designer, Heater, along with his partner and properties manager Susan Blumer, can define the three complex characters with unusual precision. All three authors regularly retreat to the laptops on their writing desks. Upmarket mystery writer Ann Jackson (Karis Wiggins) has the most expensive. She sits in an Aeron chair and decorates her desk with fresh yellow roses. Somewhat less affluent is the tweedy author of romance novels, Ken Prescott (Louis Balestra), whose office includes a couch and a ragdoll play-mouse for his cat. A reject desk from a thrift market sits before wunderkind novelist Paul Caine (Darian Sundberg) in his slovenly digs. His only published work, a “semiautobiographical” novel, has won both critical huzzahs and boffo sales.
Dialogue begins when Ken tells Ann that he thinks the project is a good idea, and a little extra cash could be handy. Many speeches are by phone so that writers can stay near their keyboards. Although Ann has been going through a dry patch, she’s more reluctant. As they are nearly the same age and are both genre writers, Ken and Ann make natural allies. Part of Ann’s reluctance stems from not knowing the third author, Paul Caine, and apprehension about his volatile personality. Her call to him justifies these fears. He rudely dismisses her, doesn’t know her name or her work, and thinks mystery-detective fiction is a load of crap, sadistic at that.
Heater never signals that we’re supposed to think the three novelists are inspired by real-life models, but each speaks for an artistic position and a coherent point of view. Thriller-detective fiction sells well, and Ann relates to at least a dozen female practitioners, Sara Paretsky (V.I. Warshawski) or Sue Grafton, who never suffers writer’s block in her long-running alphabet series (W is for Witness). Paul Caine sounds a lot like critical darling Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), who memorably told Oprah’s Book Club to take a hike. Ken Prescott, a male writer of chick-lit, is harder to place. There are such people, such as Matt Dunn (Ex-Girlfriends Unite) or Mike Gayle (The To-Do List), but they’re not big names. Ken never makes much of his gayness (Ann calls him a “grande dame”), but his sexual orientation seems to be what allows him to make a common cause with both Ann and Paul.
Playing God enjoys a surfeit of crisp, witty dialogue, much of it bitchy. (Ann: “I’m stable.” Ken: “Isn’t that something more sinister—like stagnant?”) But the show’s greater strength is as a triple character study. Not one of the three is a type but a fully fleshed-out person, including contradictions and surprise revelations. We sense this early as Ann’s first telephone conversation takes place while she’s sorting her laundry, even though domesticity is never a part of her fiction, and she dresses by far the most fashionably of the three. We may care about what happens in the contrived collaboration, but we care more about what revelations are forthcoming from the lives of the authors. Heater also wants us to keep our distance and not pick a favorite.
Bit by bit, elements of the troika-novel begin to emerge before us. Ken proposes a drop-dead gorgeous redhead (Julia Berger), whom he dresses provocatively in a clingy, revealing wrap-around. He names her Emily and has her act demurely, such as ordering only water at a sidewalk café. When Ann gets ahold of the text, she immediately upgrades the beverage to red wine.
Given his turn, Paul ups the ante steeply. Although Emily is set to meet a gentleman named Giles, he turns out to be a menacing-looking tough (Jordan Glaski) in a black leather jacket. Paul would push Giles toward a seduction of Emily, but Ken steps in to prevent it as a turn-off to his kind of mass-market readers.
This kind of manipulation of Emily and Giles is what Heater signals in his title, Playing God. But the characters don’t sit still for it. Like the ones created by Luigi Pirandello, they fight back. Emily snarls at Ken, “You make it sound as though I have hemorrhoids.”
The casting is all so apt, it looks as though Heater called up the people he wanted instead of holding open auditions. The actors playing the novelists each deliver layered performances, hinting at but holding off revealing who they really are. As two of these revelations give us darker characters than we expected, Heater is taking a huge chance but giving his players more to do.
Sandburg has racked up strong local credits (The Crucible, Twelfth Night), but he’s never looked as good as he does here. Karis Wiggins, adept at both tragedy (Frozen) and comedy (Barefoot in the Park), fuses both skills here. Louis Balestra, an Equity player with extensive national credits, returns to the Bevard where he last appeared with Contemporary Theatre of Syracuse 23 years ago. Here he polishes some of Heater’s best zingers. Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) winner Julia Berger brings a commanding presence, and Jordan Glaski can turn Giles around on a dime.
Of all people running local theater companies, Garrett Heater is the youngest, most versatile and most prolific.This is his third local premiere, the others being the SALT-winning historical dramas Lizzie Borden Took an Axe (2010) and The Romanovs (2011). He had announced a third historical work, this one on Abraham Lincoln, for this slot, so Playing God looks like something he had held in reserve.
The play is in no way derivative but resembles the intellectual comedies of Yasmina Reza. Playing God, perhaps with nips and tucks in the first act, could compete for national attention. Heater is our local guy and he’s really, really good.
This production runs through Saturday, Nov. 10. See Times Table for information.