'Emerald City' is talk at the expense of action

April 30, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

There's a long tradition of writers writing about writing and there's a tradition at least as long of stories about the seemingly good-and-noble selling their souls to the devil. For Australian screenwriter David Williamson, "Emerald City" is the magical land where the two traditions meet.

The play, which is receiving its Baltimore premiere at Theatre Hopkins, is heavy on chat and short on action. Nor does it help that the primary issue being chatted up is the definition of success -- not the most dramatic of subjects. However, Williamson's writing has wit and intelligence, and the performances at Theatre Hopkins do justice to both.

Because Williamson is the author of such international hit movies as "Gallipoli" and "The Year of Living Dangerously," and the protagonist of this play is described as "the screenwriter with the best track record in the country," it doesn't take a wizard to figure out that "Emerald City" is a largely autobiographical account of the playwright's triumph over temptation.

With that in mind, the play's self-congratulatory tone probably shouldn't be surprising. The innate integrity of Colin, the screenwriter, surfaces in almost every comprising situation. This would be more bearable if the rest of the characters didn't come off as such mercenary louts -- no, make that, heartless mercenary louts.

Admittedly, this polarity leads to some glorious knock-down, drag-out verbal battles, primarily between Colin and his wife Kate. As enacted by Harry B. Turner and Rosemary Polen, their marital sparring is responsible for some of the production's more energetic scenes.

Yet despite an impressive Aussie accent and otherwise polished performance, Turner seems too likable and good-hearted to convince us that he is ever genuinely tempted by filthy lucre and fame, much less that he is the self-obsessed egotist the other characters claim he is.

There's no such impediment to Tony Colavito's portrayal of an opportunistic no-talent screenwriter who hitches a ride on Colin's star. Though he is several rungs down the executive ladder, this slimy charlatan is the Australian cousin of the Tim Robbins character in Robert Altman's new movie, "The Player," and he's even more closely related to the Hollywood huckster Colavito limned so smoothly in David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow" at the Spotlighters last season. Colavito appears to be carving out a local niche portraying Tinseltown slugs; unless I'm mistaken, he even wears one of his "Speed-the-Plow" suits here.

Considering how talky Williamson's script is, director Suzanne Pratt does a skillful job keeping the debate spirited. She is particularly adept at choreographing the many audience asides; the most amusing of these occur at a series of cocktail parties during which the characters exchange pleasantries and then tell us what they really think.

At the start of "Emerald City," we learn that Colin's specialty is writing about the lives of the middle class. This play is the perfect example of that. And though its arguments about the nature of success have their stimulating moments, they're munchkins next to the life-and-death stakes in "Gallipoli" or "The Year of Living Dangerously." In other words, pleasant though "Emerald City" may be, it seems more like something that lackluster Colin would write than the work of the author of such breathtaking historical sagas.

"Emerald City" continues at Theatre Hopkins weekends through May 24. Call (410) 516-7159.

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