AISLE SAY San Francisco


By John Guare
Directed by John Rando
Presented by and at the American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St. at Mason, San Francisco / (415) 749-2228

Reviewed by Judy Richter

"Did anyone like this play?" the man asked. The question might have been rhetorical, but no one in the parking-garage elevator answered in the affirmative. Instead there was some low muttering as people headed for home after seeing American Conservatory Theater's production of John Guare's "Rich and Famous."

Guare originally wrote the play in 1976, but rewrote it for the ACT production, its first major revival. The plot focuses on playwright Bing Ringling (Brooks Ashmanskas), whose 844th play, "The Etruscan Conundrum," is finally his first to make it to an opening night, albeit in an obscure way-off Broadway theater. He's hoping it will make him rich and famous, but instead it's a disaster, ripped by the critics. Seeking some solace and hoping that an old friend, now a successful actor, will step into the lead role, he talks to his producer, who's thrilled to have her first flop. (It's circuitous logic.) Then he goes to an art gallery, where he runs into his high school girlfriend. His composer-collaborator isn't much help, nor are his doting, eccentric parents. All along the way, his old friend, Tybalt Dunleavy, is held up as a model for him, but when Bing finally finds Tybalt, the actor is about to do something very foolish. Supposedly the point of the play is that the pursuit of riches and fame can be illusory.

Director John Rando has four fine actors to work with, but he has them working hard for laughs at times. Except for Ashmanskas, everyone plays multiple roles. The show also includes songs by Guare with piano accompaniment by music director Laura Burton. The actors sing and move well, but Rando allows one of them, Stephen DeRosa, to go over the top in his portrayal of bisexual composer Anatol Torah and Bing's father. Gregory Wallace is a hoot as Aphro, the very gay lead actor in Bing's play, although one has to wonder why Bing would have cast an actor as awful as Aphro in the play. Wallace also plays Hare Krishna, a somewhat superfluous character. Mary Birdsong is terrific as Bing's girlfriend and leading lady, Leanara, as well as his producer, the creaky old Veronica Gulpp-Vestige, who sounds a lot like Katharine Hepburn. She also portrays Allison, Bing's old girlfriend; and Bing's mother. Allison is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the play as she enters her grandfather's landscape painting at the art gallery (sets by Scott Bradley with lighting by Alexander V. Nichols). Bing seems to hope that they can get together again, but her marriage to an emotionally abusive husband ends those thoughts.

Despite the strong production values -- colorful '70s costumes by Gregory Gale and sound by Jeremy J. Lee, in addition to the sets and lighting -- the play seems hollow because most of the characters are superficial, and Bing's emotional journey doesn't take him very far. The play runs about an hour and 45 minutes without intermission, but some people left during the scene with Anatol.

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