A real 'Diva' would have demanded a rewrite

Times Staff Writer

Hands outstretched, she lunges for his throat and has to be pulled away, arms and legs flailing in protest.

Even so, she lands a knockout punch. Panting with rage, the sitcom star demands the dismissal of the show's creator-producer, who has angered her by refusing to cater to her whims. She gets hasty acquiescence from the studio boss who witnessed the fight.

Still the star is not appeased. Out of sheer malice, she orders her muscle-bound boy toy of a husband, who's also on hand, to hurl a heavy can of soda at the stunned producer. She's not about to do it herself, you see. She's a diva.

At this point, theatergoers at the Pasadena Playhouse are expected to behave like a studio audience and provide the laugh track. Willingness to play along, however, depends on one's susceptibility to the ham-fisted setups in Howard Michael Gould's "Diva" as well as tolerance for the crude language and sexual innuendo so often resorted to for punch lines.

The sitcom world of "Diva" is well known to Gould. Indeed, he appears to have written a key resume item into his script. His title character is a former film actress whose seemingly dead career is revived by success in a sitcom bearing her name. With the show's high ratings, however, also come reports of on-set tensions, including a rivalry between the star and her wisecracking second banana, who walks off with an Emmy.

Hmm. Sounds a lot like what happened at the Cybill Shepherd sitcom "Cybill," on which Gould was an executive producer until exiting its revolving door, behind other key creative types, in 1996.

Oh sure, Gould, in a program note, declares that "the characters are all composites and this is not at all my story." But no one bought that coyness when the script was performed at La Jolla Playhouse in 2001, and few are liable to now.

For all this navel-gazing, the Pasadena production provides at least one consolation: Annie Potts, the charmer from such TV programs as "Designing Women" and "Any Day Now," portrays the diva, and though she must set aside much of her usual warmth and sparkle, she finds the humor in her shrilly written role.

In particular, she makes the character amusingly transparent. Deanna Denninger, star of the sitcom "Deanna," is the sort of person who forever picks fights, then wails about how everyone always conspires against her. Coolly, calculatingly, Potts shifts between hand-on-hip power poses and slumped victimization, playacting whichever attitude will ensure that Deanna gets her way.

Such theatrics really push the buttons of Todd Waring's executive producer, whose enraged expressions -- neck muscles tensed into sharp relief -- wouldn't be out of place in a Looney Tunes cartoon.

The play begins with the on-set blowout between Deanna and the producer, then unfurls backward through time.

Director David Lee, himself a television veteran (notably as co-creator of the long-running hit "Frasier"), paces the production much like a sitcom. Reactions between performers are played as exaggerated "takes," and intended laugh lines are given that extra punch meant to send them rocketing out of the ballpark.

The television world is also evoked in Yael Pardess' set, which is outfitted with large, hangar-like doors -- such as those found on a soundstage -- that slide open to make way for scene changes.

Solid supporting performances are supplied by Patrick Fabian as a fickle agent, Richard Kline as the forked-tongued studio boss, Robert Farrior as the hunky flunky of a husband and Ian Lithgow as the sitcom's supercilious second banana.

In its better moments, Gould's script calls attention to such genuinely perplexing Hollywood practices as ageism and occasionally delivers truthful-sounding lines, as when Deanna, fearful that her costar is getting too much screen time, huffs: "I think the show is called 'Deanna,' thank you very much, not 'Here Comes Deanna's Funny Assistant.' "

Still, if this show were a real-life sitcom, it would get yanked after a couple of episodes.



Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; call for exceptions.

Ends: Feb. 19

Price: $38 to $60

Contact: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

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