Jerry, a once-famous screenwriter/director,has hit the skids. He's currently on a project but has writer's block, fueled by drinking and the fact he never sits down to actually do any writing. Evelyn, his faded diva of a wife, tends to mournfully watch her old movies over and over, drink in hand, and is hoping the new script will bring her back into the limelight. Concerned about the lack of progress, the project's frustrated producer sends in Aaron, a young hotshot, to "assist" in any way possible. The blocked screenwriter accepts the hotshot's suggestions, as the hotshot secretly begins to rework the blocked project. Suddenly, somebody's tied to a chair and being threatened with castration.
SCR is selling System Wonderlandby David Wiener as a "new comedy," and there are a couple of things wrong with that. 1) It's not a "comedy," but a sour, turgid drama about midlife crises and the bitterness that accompanies the knowledge that your time has passed. 2) It isn't "new" when it plays like a series of "best of" moments from other, better plays and movies:
One talent rises as another falls? All About Eve . . . but without the snappy banter.
Mamet-speak dialogue and a plot centering on two men and the questionably talented woman between them? Speed the Plow . . . but without the humor.
The betrayal of an older writer by a younger writer? Daniel Margulies' Collected Stories. . .but without the character development; or Ira Levin's Deathtrap . . . but without the homoeroticism or suspense.
Under David Emmes' steady direction, the cast of Robert Desiderio, John Sloan and Shannon Cochran acquit themselves ably, considering there's not much for them to work with. Desiderio captures Jerry's self-destructive behavior, but the script keeps him at arm's length, limiting our ability to feel much for him. Only a couple of his movies are discussed—one which apparently won him an Oscar and another that was a box-office flop. There's some attempt to tie him into the Easy Riders/Raging Bulls gang, but whenever his dialogue is read aloud, it's not only remarkably bad, but also has none of the social conscience or envelope-pushing that the filmmakers Peter Biskind wrote about were famous for.
And come on, what professional screenwriter—who hopes to keep working, anyway—would refuse to use a computer or Final Draft software and instead choose a typewriter, typing every INT. CAR—NIGHT over and over again and then re-typing the entire thing when a revision is needed?
Sloan's Aaron nails young and naive, but the darker undercurrents of his character—part Sammy Glick ambition/part possible Mark David Chapman fanboy—are MIA, in the writing as well as his performance. Cochran's Evelyn is a pitifully sympathetic presence, despite her character's icy veneer, but there's no subtext; everything is on the surface.
And that's what really kills this production.
A critic once told me that when he watches plays or movies, he always looks for both the train and the track. The train was the story, and the track was the extra meaning hidden underneath. He knew he was watching something good when he could see both.
By just exploiting the Hollywood milieu and not bothering to give us anything under the surface—no critique, no additional insight—Wiener derails his own train.
SYSTEM WONDERLAND AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, JULIANNE ARGYROS STAGE, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555; WWW.SCR.ORG. TUES.-FRI., 7:45 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., 2 & 7:45 P.M. THROUGH MAY 13. $20-$60.