Theresa Rebeck told some bitter and saucy stories, without naming names, about the frustrations of her writing career in the nonfiction Free Fire Zone. She uses that insider knowledge as a successful writer for theater, movies, and TV to good effect in her third novel, I’m Glad about You.
Everything is fictionalized in I'm Glad about You, which allows her to trash Hollywood much as she trashed Broadway as the creator of the TV show Smash — i.e. with unrestrained glee. The novel explores the unresolved relationship between former high school sweethearts Alison and Kyle. Nearly a decade after high school, Kyle, who had wanted to be a doctor for poor people in Central America, struggles with his Catholic faith and his life as a suburban pediatrician. Alison is following her dream of being an actress, working her way to stardom in television and film. This is where Rebeck's engaging novel really soars, at least for me.
Anyone who wants to be a movie actress, though, should be warned: this novel will crush your dreams.
Adventures in Gomorrah
Alison's career starts in her "newly adopted city, Gomorrah" — her mother's view of New York City from Cincinnati — and how she lucks into her first TV role in a Law & Order type show, which catapults her to a salacious series role. "These jobs pay so much money," Alison thinks about a director, "why do mostly stupid people get them?"
I didn't detect any Rebeck doppelgangers in her Hollywood scenes — no wise writers, hardly any writers at all — but Alison's rise to TMZ fodder feels real, even while what happens and how she's treated is shocking. "The layers of show business bullshit were like some sort of very strange, sticky cocoon," Alison learns. She has to deal with a conceited co-star, a panicked agent, unscrupulous entertainment writers, lustful producers full of "reptilian bonhomie," and most prominently, a film director for whom she becomes a sexual plaything and a star-making project in an action film with more action behind the scenes than on camera.
An unpredictable plot
While the whirlwind of Hollywood excess tests Alison's midwest morals and common sense, we also spend a lot of I'm Glad About You with Kyle. The book opens in the past, 18 months after Alison and Kyle broke up. Alison, poor and desperate in NYC, comes home for Christmas to see the family (and borrow money). A fresh encounter with Kyle doesn't go well.
The action then jumps forward to after Alison's TV breakthrough and Kyle's marriage to Van (for Evangelina), who is so clearly the wrong woman for him that a Kyle-Alison reunion seems inevitable. Thankfully, Rebeck won't plot so conventionally, and, while their paths cross again, what happens isn't predictable or condescending, but complicated the way life is complicated. Kyle wrestles with his faith, which Rebeck treats with serious respect and mature insight, creating a parallel between Alison's love of acting and her frustrations with TV and film, and Kyle's Catholic ideals and the problems in his marriage and career.
Most writers don't navigate well from one form to another. We never hear about Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald's plays, for example, because they are dreadful. (Kurt Vonnegut wrote a play that deserves a revival, though.) Rebeck's three successful writing careers, as playwright, screenwriter, and novelist, show that exceptions are possible.
Author's note: Rebeck's play Mauritius will be produced by Act II Playhouse in Ambler next season, October 25 through November 20.