I'm a fan of small-budget theater, based not only on my years of production experience with few resources but by the impressive resourcefulness of local theater artists. But there's something fun about a handsomely luxurious staging, such as Resident Ensemble Players’ (REP's) production of Chisa Hutchinson’s From the Author of. Of course, the work must be worthy of such expense, as is this premiere, written specifically for REP's acting company and directed by Jade King Carroll.
The money — and smart design work — show in Brittany Vista's resplendently modern set, a high-ceilinged Manhattan apartment with an exposed brick wall and tasteful abstract art, delicately lit by Nicole Pearce. Additional locations glide on and off around the circular, centrally located apartment set on a nifty outer turntable. When a character praises the $5,000 leather couch, we have no trouble believing her. Barb Hughes's stylish costumes likewise fit the characters' expensive tastes.
The luxurious surroundings are important because famous author Meredith (Elizabeth Heflin) has left her fine perch for an incognito life on the streets. We don't learn much about Meredith's book (which resembles Barbara Ehrenreich's 2001 Nickel and Dimed, an undercover account of survival on minimum-wage jobs), other than the New York Times' scathing dismissal of it. "This shit was real," Meredith grouses. "I went through real hell for my art."
Meredith taxes friend Tom (Stephen Pelinski, assistant Samara (Celestine Rae), and agent Dax (Hassan El-Amin) with sour outbursts about the "toxic review." Recognizing that, as Tom quips, "geniuses are often terrible humans," they strategize her redemption by suggesting — through fake publicist Angelo (Michael Gotch), a student from Samara's improv class — that Meredith adopt a homeless person.
Hutchinson, whose socially conscious plays Dead and Breathing and The Wedding Gift are also quite clever, doesn't concoct Meredith's predictable trajectory of humble self-discovery. After a difficult process in which Meredith vetoes all men plus any woman whose name ends in "eesha" (essentially, every black prospect), they select foul-mouthed white Linda (Kathleen Pirkl Tague), whose unnerving (albeit hilarious) presence does not cause Meredith to find compassion.
No Neil Simon
The playwright eventually focuses not on the comical odd couple — the easy, obvious, familiar choice — but on Samara, the simmering young black woman who has "quietly masterminded every successful career move" for Meredith without recognition or respect. She submits her ideas through proxies like Angelo because Meredith won't take them seriously from her. While Tague makes Linda believably destitute despite the broad humor of her unfiltered crudity and boisterous bear hugs, Linda's most important function is to blab an overheard secret that forces an overdue confrontation.
After following Meredith and expecting her transformation, we've been like Meredith ourselves by overlooking the play's real main character, despite Rae's dynamic, soul-baring performance. It's a crafty turn by Hutchinson, who engineers a comic showdown, complete with Lee E. Ernst and Mic Matarrese as dueling lawyers. The 95-minute play feels overstuffed with unresolved themes, particularly the homeless issue, but its glibly cynical resolution after Meredith receives her comeuppance has a hopeful turn that rings true.
"You're an asshole," Tom says to Meredith, "but not irretrievable." He might be talking about all of us, tricked and tickled by Meredith's story and leading-lady wealth while neglecting Samara.