PROVO — It seems like every writer eventually gets around to writing about the theatre itself: the business of telling stories in which they are engaged. From Shakespeare (think Hamlet’s play-within-a-play) to Woody Allen (Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters) to many a musical (42nd Street, The Producers). Talented local playwright Melissa Leilani Larson joins the discussion in her new play A Flickering, which opened this past Friday. And I must advise you to hurry to the theatre friends—the production has a short run. It is not to be missed.
The play is set in the early days of silent cinema and centers around two friends—Max, a would-be film director, and Sam, a would-be stage actor. But their friendship is strained when the ambitious Max puts her career aspirations before her loyalty to her friend. Max doesn’t do this because of a lack of love for Sam—she is adamant about her affection—but instead because of a certain self-centeredness on her part.
In fact, Max’s feelings for Sam seem to be more than just platonic. She repeatedly tells her friend that she can’t live without her; and that Sam and the movies are all she cares about. If you have—shall we say—more conservative views about homosexuality don’t let that keep you away from this excellent play. Everyone in the play, including Max herself, seem to be unaware that she feels more than just friendship for Sam, and the whole issue is dealt with in a very tasteful way. This reviewer adheres to the tenants of the LDS faith, and sometimes shies away from depictions of homosexuality in performances, but personally did not find this depiction to be anything but faith promoting.
The play excels in its exploration of themes—and Larson doesn’t limit herself to just a few but instead delves into a myriad. This is never a problem; on the contrary it only makes the experience all the more rich. Larson investigates art and commerce as the uncomfortable bedfellows they are and explores the intersections and divergences of art and entertainment. She also delves into the profound and deep longing for success burning in the hearts of so many artists, the inevitable complications that follow success, as well as the capriciousness of that success. Her examination of the problems of art and faith are particularly interesting. Early in the play, Sam’s uncle asks her how theatre can be good when it relies so heavily on pretense, and questions the good in something surrounded by so much “glamour.”
I particularly enjoyed the depiction of Sam and her Uncle as Brooklyn Jews. It’s the first time I can recall the depiction of a Jewish character on a Utah stage that wasn’t part of Fiddler on the Roof.
The show’s design and music are also praiseworthy. Most scenes are preceded by cue cards in the style of silent movies cleverly projected onto the set. Watch for these; it took me a few scenes to catch onto the convention and I missed a bit of information as a result. Scene changes are also accompanied by live music from Julianna Boulter on the piano; she also provides musical underscoring to the action. This lovely music is in the style of silent movies. Both of these conventions are very well executed and add to the pleasure of the show.
Despite the overall excellence of the production, I must confess to a few criticisms. The biggest is the story. While enjoyable, it ends jarringly. In fact, I was expecting an intermission until the cast took their bows. (If I had read the play’s program before the show, I would have learned the play had no intermission.) Normally, such an abrupt ending would have left me cold, but in this case (after the initial confusion) I found it didn’t detract significantly from the experience. Because the play is mostly about character and theme rather than story, the impact of the sudden ending was mitigated. I just wanted a second act.
In addition, the acting could have been stronger. While the performances were fairly realistic and never rang false, they lacked depth. This was most a problem with Carrie Joslin, as Sam. The problem was exasperated by the fact that Sam is a rather an angelic, uncomplicated character. Her character lacks some depth, which puts a heavier burden on the actress. Joslin gave a believable, but not particularly noteworthy performance. Emily Bell’s performance as Max also lacked depth, but in this case the multifaceted, funny, ambitious, blunt, passionate and demanding character of drew me in. Max is truly a marvelous creation. Larson’s play Little Happy Secrets, produced last spring, was outstanding for numerous reasons—one of them was the oh-so-human character Larson created, full of quirks and contradictions. We knew those characters. Max is such another creation—we know this girl. Another character full of humanity is Baron, who is more than just the crusty, sarcastic, (and comical) studio head he appears to be when we first meet him.
This reviewer would be remiss is she did not praise Joey Scoma’s supporting performance as Lawrence. The relationship between film studio head Baron and his assistant Lawrence is reminiscent of the relationship on television’s 30 Rock between executive Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) and his assistant Jonathan. Scoma performance is slyly humorous and adorably bumbling. Simply put, he is hilarious. The combination of a well-written part and a talented comic actor are a highlight of the show. Even more impressive, Scoma achieves all this while avoiding the two classic pitfalls of comedic performances: overacting and begging for laughs. He keeps it real, but brings the laughs. This is so laudable because avoiding these pitfalls seems to be increasingly rare on Utah stages.
Despite my quibbles, I can’t emphasize enough how entertaining, enriching, and overall excellent this production was. Get thee to the theater! And quickly. I’ve no doubt Provo Theater’s small space will sell out—and if you miss this show you will be missing out indeed.