FRINGE PERENNIAL JOSEPH SCRIMSHAW, working with his latest self-penned script, plays heavily to his strengths in The Damn Audition -- and that is something of a mixed blessing. Scrimshaw is a very funny writer, and the script contains a level of quips-per-page that would make Neil Simon squirm with envy. The play tells of a small group of actors auditioning for a terrible-sounding Satanically-themed sitcom. The jokes are funny, but the humor relies overmuch on clichés, mostly about the weirdness of Hollywood -- a place, according to the play, populated primarily by psychotic child actors, flaky cult members, and pompous, vaguely abusive film directors.
There may be some truth to that characterization, but it's such a superficial examination. This sort of depiction of Hollywood can't begin to capture just how quotidian the film industry is most of the time, and how truly lunatic it is the rest.
But Scrimshaw knows how to please his audience, even when retreading old ground; there is even a joke in the play about Lutherans -- the sort of thing I thought the Brave New Workshop and Prairie Home Companion had already strip-mined so thoroughly that only rubble was left behind. But Scrimshaw manages to pull laughs from it.
And while he writes in a way that risks a certain sameness in delivery - one suspects that, on the page, all of his characters sound exactly alike -- Scrimshaw compensates with intelligent casting. This show, in particular, benefits from a superlative cast, including Twin Cities theater stalwarts Maggie Chestovich and David Mann. Scrimshaw himself takes the role of a director, which he plays with an impatient eccentricity. It's this character who's behind the play's showcase showdown, the titular audition, which occurs between a child-star-in-decline (played with oozing contempt by John Middleton) and a fresh-off-the-turnip-truck acting hopeful from Minneapolis' community theater scene (Randy Reyes).
Reyes' character is responsible for an outrageous display of bad acting during his audition, in which every single word is indicated by overbroad gestures, in some preposterous way, as though acting were some form of charades. Scrimshaw's character seems impressed by the hugeness of it ("Can you go bigger?" he asks), but Reyes is such an eager innocent, it's not clear that he can play evil, prompting Scrimshaw to offer him the role on the condition that he make Middleton cry.
And this moment is good -- quite good. It cuts through the easier humor of the rest of the play and reaches for something scarier. Suddenly, we're witness to just how banal and offhanded evil can be, how it rarely comes with a demon's face. Instead, evil more often takes the form of casual, off-the-cuff meanness -- a request born of thoughtlessly malicious curiosity which others act on -- because they might get something out of it, because it doesn't seem like a big deal, and, besides, the other fellow probably deserved it anyway.
In this moment, Scrimshaw reaches beyond the easy quips to produce something that feels a bit more dangerous. Even so, I can't help but feel the sharpness of this moment is somewhat cushioned by the script that surrounds it, with its reliance on breezy potshots and comfortable clichés. Then again, it also points to something terrible in how easily people can be cruel to each other. Perhaps Oscar Wilde was right about the idea the the most serious of subjects must be treated with the greatest of frivolity. This play has frivolity to spare.
Related performance details:
The Damn Audition, presented by Joking Envelope, is on stage at the U of M Rarig Center Thrust. Remaining shows: August 11 (10 pm), 14 (2: 30), 15 (4 pm)
Check back regularly throughout the Fringe Festival for more short reviews on mnartists.org, sent in from our intrepid performance critics
About the author: Max Sparber is a playwright and journalist, as well as being a member of the unforgivably rude cult band The Dirty Curls. His work as a playwright can be read at http://www.maxsparberplays.com/.