The old saying goes that there are a million tales of heartbreak in Hollywood, and Jennifer Aniston Stole My Life could well be another one of them, but it rises above cliché with fine performances, some welcome comedy relief, and a story with emotional resonance.
Rue Murphy (Barbara Keegan) is an aspiring actress who’s been at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain for years, working as an extra but still dreaming of getting her big break. She lives in a rundown North Hollywood apartment with her daughter, Lo (Jesse Holcomb), who was once a child star on a hit sitcom but who now suffers from bipolar disorder and spends her days as a recluse watching trash reality television.
Money is tight. An unscrupulous business manager had run off with Lo’s TV earnings long ago, and Rue’s housecleaning business is failing. The cost of Lo’s treatment is exorbitant, so she decides to rent out one of their bedrooms to Shari Katzin (Diana Wright), a recent L.A. transplant and member of a Scientology-type organization whose bubbly confidence that she’s going to become a big star causes Rue’s jaded eyes to roll.
But Rue is more than happy to take Shari’s cash even as she dismisses her as another newbie with delusions of grandeur…until the girl’s career quickly gains momentum, resulting in a sitcom offer from NBC.
Naive Shari hires their porn-producing building manager, Morty (Barry Gordon), as her personal representative and even arranges for Rue to try out for the part of her mother on the show. Rue’s Hollywood dreams are ignited once again as her daughter’s needs are pushed further into the background.
If it sounds like bleak stuff, it is to an extent — but Jon Courie’s play is generously sprinkled with naturalistic humor that the actors take full advantage of without overdoing it. You’ve met all of these people if you’ve lived in this town long enough.
At first, Keegan seems way over the top until you realize that this is really the person Rue is. Trading a miserable trailer park existence in Florida for an equally wretched life in Los Angeles, she’s always performing, and the more desperate she gets, the harder she tries.
Playing crazy can be tricky and, in the wrong hands, embarrassing. Holcomb avoids these pitfalls with a darkly humorous characterization that’s either up or down. In a drugged haze, she’ll frantically describe the plot of the reality show she’s been watching to anyone who will listen…and just as suddenly she’ll turn on her mother with a cutting comment that nevertheless rings true. She keeps us watching her even when she has no lines.
Veteran character actor Gordon gives Morty a pleasing heart of gold beneath his sleazy exterior, and Wright hits the correct notes as the girl who seems to be getting a free pass in life but is imbued with an unexpected streak of generosity.
Deborah Geffner’s direction is sharp, bringing out the best in the actors and punching up the humor. And there’s a terrific irony behind the show’s title and the cult of celebrity.
Jennifer Aniston Stole My Life plays varying times through June 23rd at the Hudson Guild Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Check online for schedule and reservations.