Playing in rep as The Gyre at Soho’s Walkerspace are The Qualification of Douglas Evans and Enter at Forest Lawn, two plays about producers of art who have quite an uncanny relationship to the material they draw on. The works are equally fascinating and complement each other well. Even though they deal with two very different realms of creative work (theater in New York and television production in L.A. respectively) they piece together a strong, sordid, and seductive image of the relationship between art and our primal human desires.
The Qualification of Douglas Evans opens with an 18-year old Douglas Evans (Derek Ahonen) clumsily losing his virginity to his beautiful 24-year-old Meisner scene partner Jessica (Kelley Swindall). It’s a sublime experience for the inexperienced and rather naive actor, but his new hopeful connection is squashed when Jessica promptly leaves acting school to follow her rocker boyfriend on tour. Douglas spends the next decade of his life grasping at what must have been this intensely beautiful experience. As he starts up and ends relationship after relationship, his night with Jessica continues to weigh upon him in halting ways—the same turn of phrase, the same gap in age, the same blond hair. Kimmy (Mandy Nicole Moore) is his next girlfriend, a bubbly, petite, and fiercely loyal writer who turns Douglas onto wiring while she descends into obsessive alcoholism. Douglas writes his first play about his relationship with Kimmy and it’s much like Kimmy herself: bombastic, self-indulgent, and too faithful to its source, putting real-life dialogue word-for-word on the page. Douglas produces and stars in his play, and the results, which we see glimpses of, are dismal. As his next girlfriend Cara (Samantha Strelitz) sees it, “You wrote a masturbatory play about your stupid relationship with some stupid girl and then you stupidly starred in it and were equally as bad at playing yourself as you were at writing about yourself.” Several years later, Douglas, now a devastated alcoholic, strikes up a new relationship with the extra-compassionate and adorable Robin (Agatha Nowicki). And what do you know, he writes a play about her too! This play is proclaimed to be a surefire hit, given Douglas’s celebrity status in a flashforward scene, but unlike the Kimmy play, we don’t see any of it at all. It’s like a magical unicorn, this honest play about an honest reality. How do you even begin to write it?
That is, unless it’s supposed to be the play we are watching, The Qualification of Douglas Evans itself. The Amoralists smartly cast Derek Ahonen, the play’s own playwright, as Douglas Evans, in a art-imitates-life-imitiates-art master puzzle (or is it the other way around?) It’s like looking through two facing mirrors and seeing reflections of reflections on all sides (cue Arcade Fire earworm), which is precisely the emotional effect that Douglas’s relationships must have on his art and on his subsequent relationships.
Enter at Forest Lawn is Douglas Evan’s dirtier, richer, foul-mouthed, West Coast cousin. Playwright Mark Roberts was a television writer and executive producer on sitcoms like Two and a Half Men and Mike and Molly, and Forest Lawn feels like the meanest, sexiest, and most sadistic goodbye letter to Hollywood industry life ever. That said, it’s also terribly engrossing and chillingly enjoyable. The play takes place entirely in the office of Jack Story (again played by playwright Mark Roberts), a man who dresses more like part of a chain gang than the multi-millionaire writer/producer that he is. Walking around his desk with a small limp and pointed, crooked knees, he looks like a Miltonic Satan. In fact, everyone’s outward appearances seem to reflect their inner turmoil. There’s Story’s PR rep (David Lanson), a hunched-over loaf who fears that the stress and immorality of his job has caused a tumor on his testicle. There’s his new secretary (Sarah Lemp), a nervous and heady young woman who trips over her new shoes every time she exits the office. There’s the war veteran-turned-writer (Matthew Pilieci) from Alabama with a hook for a hand, hoping to be a part of Story’s ventures. And lastly there’s Story’s power-hungry competition, an ex-flame (Anna Stromberg) who operates her business more like a sex dungeon than a studio.
Forest Lawn is wildly entertaining, fast-paced and witty, and disturbingly hilarious. These characters feel more like atavistic warriors, primal strategists, tribal gods in commodified world. As easily as they can manipulate their financial (and sexual) ambitions, they would likely look out-of-place against a Malibu palm-tree landscape or the pristine floor-to-ceiling windows of the corporate world. Thankfully, both plays are staged on a minimalist set that looks like an imposing ancient stone temple (talk about primordial desires) designed by David Harwell. Surely, they’ve clawed their way to the top, and the psychosocial effects of this journey are clear in their hellish bodies and actions. Much like the disparity between the characters and their luxurious, first-class lifestyles, it would seem that reality fits itself into the sitcoms that Story creates only with vast and muting changes. One of the most compelling scenes of the play (there are many) is a short reflection that Story makes on the nature of sitcom-writing. He has the unique creativity to warp the brutal realities of life into a heartwarming, entertaining, easy-down-your-throat package of a sitcom. The soldier who has witnessed and committed atrocious war crimes becomes the trope American hero who adjusts to life back home as an audience roots for him to win back the girl of his dreams. As Story says, “I can make anything funny. I turned an alcoholic sadist who beats his wife and kids into a silly, scatter-brained Super-dad. The pedophile uncle, transformed into a rascally, lovable playboy. Sneaking you into the track instead of making you suck his dick…Abracadabra and America laughs.” Would we be able to muster the strength to consume an art that truthfully represents the realities of life?