Signal Ensemble Theatre. Book by Ronan Marra. Music and lyrics by Jon Steinhagen. Directed by Marra. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Back in 2010, the TV drama The Good Wife—which is set in Chicago but filmed in New York—had an episode featuring an odd cameo by the “Steppenwolf Theatre Company.” In a scene set at a gala dinner, the guests are asked to direct their attention to Steppenwolf actors presenting “scenes from their hit play The Cow with No Country.” What’s shown is something like War Horse crossed with an elementary school pageant—and many local viewers took issue with the throwaway bit as a contemptuous representation of live theater that was about as tone-deaf and un-Steppenwolf as could be.
The Next Thing, a remarkably out-of-touch new musical from Signal Ensemble Theatre, is sort of the same thing in reverse. A romantic comedy set against the backdrop of Hollywood’s movie-industrial complex, the piece gets so much wrong about the milieu it chooses to depict as to insult the film world and the theater audience simultaneously.
Kate Cunningham (Courtney Jones) is a serious British stage actress whose one film credit, the mostly unseen indie The Patient Bookkeeper, gets her a big Hollywood break starring in a period costume drama opposite Conor Williams (Christopher Selefski), a crass young megastar who’s the embodiment of rejected gags from Entourage.
The two make instant enemies, but the film is a smash hit, prompting its aggressive producer (Eleanor Katz as a kind of friendlier, female analogue of Scott Rudin or Harvey Weinstein) to talk the pair into a multi-picture deal—to include, improbably, a zombie action thriller and a science fiction space opera—over the course of which Kate and Conor can resist, and slowly give in to, their real-life love.
Marra and Steinhagen’s attempt to splice the billion-dollar business that is modern Hollywood with the let’s-put-on-a-show ethos of Mickey and Judy simply doesn’t fly. For one thing, the writers create no stakes whatsoever for Conor and Kate, whose chemistry has to be accepted as a given; though Jones and Selefski sell it as hard as they can, their characters’ connection still comes across as more unlikely than undeniable.
The authors devote too much attention to the rising and falling fortunes of secondary characters Laura (Katz) and her dejected director Sam (Joseph Stearns), while Stephanie Wohar and Taylor Okey are stuck with characters so lightly sketched they might as well not be there.
And the goofy portrayal of Hollywood dealings should bring a roll to the eyes of anyone who’s picked up an Entertainment Weekly in the last quarter-century, let alone the sizable numbers of laymen these days who read Variety and Deadline.com like racing forms.
Steinhagen’s numbers, while pleasantly tuneful, too often serve to establish and reestablish character traits rather than to advance the story, and Marra’s stiff staging, swallowed up in the abyss of scenic designer Melania Lancy’s red velvet theater curtains, seems unmoored from the real world. Perhaps it’s meant to be fantasy, or at least fanciful, but if so, that’s not coming across in its current form. The next thing on the creators’ agenda has to be making clearer what The Next Thing wants to be.