A totally downer life: WTT regional premiere

Based on a Totally True Story. High on style, shy on substance. There must be a discount on royalties for less than compelling plays about 20-something malcontents and their relationship challenges; why else would companies choose to produce them often? In its studio theatre space Water Tower Theatre presents a gay romance with attempts at dramatic overtones by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, of comic book and HBO series Big Love fame. WTT production values outpace this predictable script at every turn. Fast-paced direction can’t pull this one out, by the bootstraps or designer deck shoes. Aguirre-Sacasa has garnered a favorable rep in certain circles for his writing, including a GLAAD Media Award nomination and the prestigious Harvey Award (Best New Talent). His possibly autobiographical woe-is-us tale focuses on a gay, selfish, inconsiderate, 20-something screenwriter who suffers hideously from achieving success (poor baby) and soundly rebuffs those people in his life who might give a damn about him (who knows why?).

It is, like, a real downer.

Jared Eaton, Andrew Phifer

Jared Eaton, Andrew Phifer

WTT’s clever staging (directed by James Paul Lemons) opens with film projection of The Flash cartoon footage, setting up potentially promising metaphorical comparisons between real life and fantasy. Where the writer hoped it would go? The multi-level, brightly lit, u-shaped set allows the contemporary story to zip along at hyper-caffeinated speed. Alas, the show tanks with every utterance from weasel-like main character Ethan (Andrew Phifer), lamenting about failed relationships, his successful career as a comic book writer (oh, the strain of it) and becoming an even more successful screenwriter (horrible, horrible). The most interesting characters crossing the stage are secondary: 1) a Hollywood producer with a heart-a-gold, designer handbag and oft-referenced never seen husband-business partner, played with saucy verve and perpetual LA euphoria by Mary Anna Austin. 2) Ethan’s sweet-natured father, divorcing and blazing new pathways to self-awareness, played by Barry Nash with natural charm and kind wit.

The plot? Ethan has to reveal his self-absorbed misery in play-by-play fashion–the first chance meeting with handsome, hunky boyfriend at a coffee house, the living together in bliss scene, the “why I can’t share myself with you” moment. He manages to drive off said lover Michael (surprise), written as little more than a compliant stereotype nice guy and played with resolutely wooden delivery by Beau Trujillo. Both actors are capable of believable, nuanced performance. I know they are; I’ve seen them do it. Not with this script. Jared Eaton rounds out the cast, filling in with several stock characters of a TV sitcom nature, and getting the most laughs. Displays an impressive set of pecs, too. The play concludes with a projected “screening” of the finale of Ethan’s labor of torture, his HBO script, as all characters join the audience to “watch it.” Best moment in the show.

Like cutesy gay-themed sitcoms? This play’s for you. Water Tower Theatre presents Based on a Totally True Story, a regional premiere in their Discover Series through May 3, 2009 with performances on Thursdays at 7:30 PM, Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 PM, and Sundays at 2:00 PM in the Studio Theatre at the Addison Theatre Centre. Seating is general admission with no late seating. Tickets $20 Box office: 972.450.6232 or http://www.watertowertheatre.org

PHOTO: Jared Eaton, Andrew Phifer

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