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Theater Review: David Wiener’s System Wonderland at South Coast Repertory

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With echoes of several masterworks, especially the Billy Wilder film with the similarly metered title, Sunset Boulevard, David Wiener’s new System Wonderland takes us into rich, if charted, waters. Whether it’s Wiener’s dramaturgy, a central performance, or both, the journey ends with the feeling there has been some drifting along the way.

The three-member cast in South Coast Repertory’s world premiere, directed by David Emmes from a script commissioned by the theater, must triangulate a story that wants to explore several conflicting issues: pursuit of artistic integrity in a Hollywood system that eschews it; creative collaboration and mentoring between characters out to exploit those relationships; and, perhaps most importantly, a love affair whose protection is paramount despite little evidence of it.

The biggest challenge in all of this falls to Robert Desiderio who, as Oscar® Winner Jerry Wolfe, appears to be Max to the neo-Norma Desmond of Shannon Cochran’s Evelyn Kinkade – but Jerry soon throws off any yoke of subservience. In fact, after many dry years, he is himself in need of getting back in the good graces of the studio. After submitting a new treatment to a production executive, he is sent a young film school grad to help him with his typing. Aaron, played by John Sloan, back after his debut in SCR’s wonderful production of The Retreat from Moscow, has the backstory of Jay Gatsby and the moves of John Guare's Paul in Six Degrees

Wiener has given this three-sided story strong legs: reasons that they stay connected yet are propelled in pursuit of their own interests. Emmes serves him well with pacing and spacing that allows the story to breath as it powers forward. He also has an appreciation for what makes both the art and business of filmmaking endlessly fascinating. Still, as Jerry appears more and more to be the key to the balance, he also feels increasingly one-dimensional. Consequently, Wiener's story begins to sink. 

Whether it's murkiness in Wiener’s script or a lead actor out of his depth, the character is not navigating these conflicting demands. When the play ends with sacrifice as the only explanation for what has gone down, we must send our memory back down the play's plotlines to determine whether Jerry was being loving or controlling.

In one exchange Jerry is haranguing Aaron about how to read the script. Two or three times he stops him, each time admonishing him: “No, read the words.” Eventually Aaron satisfies him, but it's doubtful anyone in the theater, including Aaron, knows what he was after. It's an investment Wiener has made to show this man’s conflicting side, but he doesn't get the pay-off. All we heard was browbeating.

We believe his wife loves him even before she says so, but on three different occasions, when she shares a memory in hopes of eliciting affection, Jerry does not recall them. In an opening scene that shows him worried about his appearance for an imminent meeting, he immediately begins bullying the guest without any interest in him. Finally, though his ego, when reputation and perhaps marriage hinge on getting a script accepted, he sends an inexperienced and potentially untrustworthy proxy off to do his bidding. All of these conflicting aspects can be sorted out from hints in the script, but it takes some doing because they're not evident in the playing.

Ultimately, however, the historical marker that buoys this South Coast Repertory premiere may be the debut not of the writer but of Cochran. A popular actress in Chicago and winner of an Obie for the sensational Bug a few years back, her only noted Southern California credit is Tina Landau’s Space, at the Taper in 1999. As she displayed in the reading of this play at the theater’s 2006 Playwrights Festival, her performance is in touch with her character's core at all times. As if keeping her foot on her third rail, she stays connected to that submerged source. Not only are her actions always understandable, she gives Evelyn the full dimension: tragic, hopeful, playful, and dangerous.  Wiener, Emmes, and Desiderio need to see if Jerry really deserves to live with her.

CREDITS by David Wiener, directed by David Emmes WITH Shannon Cochran, Robert Desiderio, John Sloan PRODUCTION Myung Hee Cho, sets/costumes; Lap-Chi Chu, lights; Tom Cavnar, sound; Victor Mouledoux/Chip Tompkins, video; Martin Noyes, fights; Erin Nelson, stage management.  South Coast Repertory • April 22-May 13, 2007 (reviewed 4/29)  World Premiere, commissioned by SCR

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