When playwrights have experienced firsthand the dog-eat-dog Hollywood system, it must be satisfying to return to the theater, where they have the kind of power and respect that can be hard to come by in film.
Adam Mervis, who has credits as a playwright and a screenwriter, has a lot to say about the vicissitudes of Hollywood in his new play, "The Portman Delusions," at the Raven Playhouse in North Hollywood. However, it's tricky when a writer writes about writing, and although Mervis makes salient points about the powerlessness of the artist and the perniciousness of committee design, "Delusions" is largely an unfocused industry in-joke that ranges from the snarky to the glum.
Mervis plays Roy, a disaffected screenwriter-turned-novelist who is determined to become a "real writer." Roy prides himself on being above the commercial fray, but when he's offered big bucks to convert his unpublished tome into a television pilot, he jumps at the cash — only to watch his project whittled into incomprehensibility by seemingly endless rewrites.
Tangled relationships of a mostly sexual nature abound, a sort of "La Ronde" of characters that includes Roy's new girlfriend, Jamie (Kate Spare); Roy's copywriting partner and best friend, Mark (Brice Williams); Jamie's best friend, Clare (Shi Ne Nielson); and Roy's new producer, Kurtz (Jeff Kerr McGivney), who is a blatant metaphor of corrupting power, as frequent references to "Heart of Darkness" clumsily attest.
Director Thomas Burr, who also plays Keith, Roy's name-dropping agent, elicits some nicely naturalistic performances from his cast, although certain lines are lost in hurried and muted deliveries. The weak link in this mix is, ironically, the character of Roy, who is eventually reduced to drooling insanity — a psychotic break that conveniently evanesces in time for a bittersweet ending. It's a reductive take on mental illness that seems offensively simplistic and plunges this struggling satire into unmotivated darkness, a perplexing tonal divide that Mervis fails to breach.
"The Portman Delusions"
Where: Raven Playhouse, 5233 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; ends Nov. 4
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
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