More misadventure in the screen trade

It might be heresy for a theater critic to admit, but Hollywood has done a better job of skewering the theater than the theater has done skewering Hollywood. Give me "All About Eve" over "Once in a Lifetime" any day. Of course, theater people make far more vivid characters than movie types. They're wittier, they're more eccentric, and they have other thing on their minds besides Donald Trump-size fortunes. Plus, their plots tend to be less ponderous. Plays about Tinseltown always seem to revolve around the jeopardized soul of an artist. (Boring!) Movies about the stage, on the other hand, are content with the scheming, conniving and backbiting that unfailingly put the show in showbiz.

"System Wonderland," David Wiener's new play about a young screenwriter's entanglement with a successful middle-aged writer-director whose career has stalled and his fading-actress wife, doesn't shift the balance of power. The laugh-rationing comedy, which opened Friday at South Coast Repertory, fails to capitalize on the compelling twist it lends to an old tale. What starts off as a seemingly familiar drama about a greenhorn's morally precarious entry into the big leagues turns into a curious psychological study of a more or less chaste menage a trois in which the line between movie fantasy and harsh reality keeps shifting.

Unfortunately, the play lacks the scintillating dialogue one expects from these stargazing works, and it doesn't effectively establish the Hollywood universe these characters call home.

Jerry (Robert Desiderio) and Evelyn (Shannon Cochran) are living somewhere on the Southern California coast, in a house showcasing an Oscar on the mantelpiece, a typewriter on the desk and a film projector in the living room. At first glance, it would seem that the action is set in an earlier era -- maybe the late '60s or early '70s -- but when Aaron (John Sloan) arrives as an assistant not long out of film school, he wonders why Jerry won't allow him to use a laptop to update the script.

Clearly, the couple, like Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard," is stuck in the past. But what past could this possibly be? The names Robert Altman and Dennis Hopper are dropped, but Jerry and Evelyn seem to be almost a full generation younger than these illustrious figures. Footage of Evelyn's cinematic triumphs, which flickers between scenes, vaguely suggests some kind of noir celebrity, with an accent or two of John Cassavetes' moodiness. She's apparently a cult figure (with stacks of unanswered fan mail to prove it), but I'm afraid even the great film encyclopedist Leslie Halliwell would have trouble placing her.

This sketchiness might not seem worth complaining about, but it's symptomatic of Wiener's inability to ground his adventurous dramatic imagination in persuasive reality. Plot elements obviously don't need to be factually based, but they shouldn't provoke a battery of confusing questions and incredulous shrugs.

Perhaps if the opening scene, in which Aaron arrives at Jerry's door and is grilled by him -- the classic routine in which the newbie is given a job despite failing the crusty veteran's interview -- were better written, it would be easier to go along with the rest. But the movie Jerry is cooking up (the one that Aaron will eventually threaten to hijack with his interloping rewrites) would be farfetched even if Jerry really were living in the '70s -- and writing florid TV movies of the week.

The good news is that, for all his reliance on empty cliches and moldy stereotypes, Wiener is capable of rambunctious ideas and theatrical fearlessness. Jerry's trick of asking his wife and Aaron to enact early drafts of his screenplay with as much literalness as possible to help flesh it out sets in motion all kinds of combustible shenanigans (picture in your minds ropes, knives and adulterous intrigue). And the playwright's appreciation of intimate relationships -- in particular, the damage loved ones are willing to do to protect one another from brutal inevitability -- reveals a compassionate understanding too stark for sentimentality.

The production, directed by SCR producing artistic director David Emmes, features an attractive beachfront home designed by Myung Hee Cho. One could very well imagine the spread in Architectural Digest, circa 1974, and the fabulous parties that must have taken place there. Any minute you half expect Tuesday Weld to drop by.

But it's the cast that has the tricky assignment of locating the somewhat dubious roles. Luckily, Desiderio is an actor of total conviction. Even his throwaway lines seem naturally motivated. As his character's behavior becomes fiendishly unstable and aggressive toward Aaron (credibly brought to life by Sloan), Desiderio still manages to keep things within the ballpark of plausibility.

Cochran, an actress who made a striking impression the one other time I've seen her onstage (off-Broadway, as a battered woman in Tracy Letts' "Bug"), plays an icon in airbrushed strokes. It's a fluttery performance -- a portrait of an aging beauty in clinging dresses and even clingier denial -- that can't quite conceal the half-baked nature of the character.

Someone, get Wiener on the phone in a hurry -- Cochran and the others need one more good rewrite!