By Lynn Venhaus
The intoxicating mystique of Los Angeles, with its star-making machinery and as the Dream Factory capital in Hollywood, has enticed starry-eyed people to flock there for at least a century.
Inevitably, some become disillusioned and compare the unnatural and phony atmosphere to the shiny synthetic Christmas tree decoration, thus the derogatory L.A. nickname. — “Tinsel Town.”
This is also the title of local playwright Joe Hanrahan’s witty collection of three short one-acts that are an insightful and humorous view of the deals, players, sights and sounds of La-La Land. They say write what you know, and Hanrahan has cleverly captured the rhythms of the industry as a ‘company town’ in the land of swimming pools and movie stars.
Hanrahan, artistic director of The Midnight Company, is producing these original works Dec. 2-18, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., including two Sunday matinee performances Dec. 5 and 12 at 2 p.m., at the .ZACK Theatre.
The show presents three relatable scenarios that take place in a 24-hour period: “Late Lunch on Melrose,” “Just Off Sunset” and “Shoot in Santa Monica.”
This amusing glimpse is directed by Rachel Tibbetts, and she brightly capitalizes on the obvious chemistry between Hanrahan and the multi-faceted Ellie Schwetye. The duet work in sync, playing off each other seamlessly, which takes trust and displays their comfort with each other on stage.
The trio are true collaborators and have worked together in different capacities over the years. It’s fun to watch people who mutually respect each other have fun telling stories in tandem.
Aided by Michael B. Musgrave-Perkins’ stellar videography capturing the glitz, glamour, and gorgeous weather – and palm trees! — we have a keen sense of time (present) and recognizable places on a small, economical set.
An outdoor café is the setting for a “Late Lunch on Melrose” between a talent agent (Hanrahan) and his most famous client, a narcissistic actress (Schwetye) who is unhappy about the lack of work – and is no longer the flavor of the month. It’s 1:30 p.m., and the drama queen is impatient. The pair adjust their temperaments, between air kisses, depending on who has the edge as they sip martinis.
That’s the start of a tiny plot thread that will smartly unify all three parts, with the second, “Just Off Sunset,” taking place at 12:15 a.m. in an alley behind a nightclub where a once-hot rock singer (Schwetye) is trying to rejuvenate her career but is frustrated. She bonds with a grizzled session musician who’s seen it all, who has some tips for her, and she’s grateful for the feedback and advice.
The first act mimics L.A.’s notorious wheeling and dealing for laughs, no matter how disingenuous, and the characters are exaggerated to suit standard images we have in our minds – and is more caricature than sincere, but that’s the point.
The second one really percolates with the speech patterns of experienced, world-weary musicians, and the two performers seem authentic as they discussed their working lives.
The final act, “Shoot in Santa Monica,” is broader comedy and hits the nail on the head about selling out for commercial blockbusters just so you can do the smaller projects for love of the craft. Sound familiar? A stage actor from England (Hanrahan) is making his first movie and is anxious and overwhelmed. But at the urging of the director (Schwetye), he will muster his courage to deliver a speech about vanquishing their nemesis – space vampires. Not saying the lines exactly as written, it may sound like one of Winston Churchill’s addresses during World War II, but who’s gonna figure it out, right?
The time is 12:40 p.m. the next day. With a simple outfit change, Hanrahan conveys an actor in military garb acting in front of a ‘green screen,’ and his character must inspire the crowd. In a world where evil lurks in the fictional form of ridiculous monsters – and CGI-heavy movies that could be written by chimps – they know it’s sci-fi crap, but hey, that’s entertainment!
Hanrahan has a flair for writing about the behind-the-scenes drama — and comedy — of showbiz, and the two-person exchanges are sharp. He acknowledges a ‘new normal’ because of the pandemic and adds those challenges to the script.
The performers capably navigate these characters in a natural, appealing way, and it’s a pleasant experience escaping a tumultuous winter as an armchair traveler whisk away to Southern California. From Melrose to the Sunset Strip to Santa Monica, we see three facets of a process that’s fertile grounds for comic human exploration.
In these post-vaccinated pandemic times, Hanrahan, a brilliant storyteller, has used his talents to keep active on stage, earlier presenting two interesting one-man shows – his original crowd-pleasing nostalgic account of his childhood in the mid-60s, “Now Playing Third Base for the St. Louis Cardinals…Bond, James Bond,” which he developed from a one-act first presented at the St. Louis Fringe Festival, in July, and then “Here Lies Henry,” with a book by Daniel Brooks and Daniel MacIvor and directed by Schwetye, about an odd personality telling us his life story – which may or may not be true because of his penchant for alternative facts.
He has kept very busy — also performing in the five-person ensemble “It Is Magic,” by one of his favorite playwrights, Mickle Maher, that comically mashes up “Macbeth” and “The Three Little Pigs” by a community theater with some very colorful characters and was directed by Suki Peters in the fall.
For this year’s St. Louis Theatre Showcase (instead of the Grand Center Theatre Crawl), he presented an earlier penned one-act, “Tonight’s Special.”
The Midnight Company will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year – and it’s quite an achievement because he has skillfully used available resources to present humorous and thought-provoking works.
For this latest production, he has brought the two accomplished professional actresses and directors along for the journey. Tibbetts, the current artistic director of the Prison Performing Arts group, and Schwetye, are leaders of SATE (Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble), a highly regarded creative troupe.
Hanrahan first worked with Tibbetts when he recruited her to direct “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll,” and their association has since included his acting in SATE’s “One Flea Spare,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Doctor Faustus,” and last year’s Aphra Behn Festival.
And she has acted in Midnight’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” and “A Model for Matisse,” which Schwetye directed, who also helmed Midnight’s Irish thriller “Little Thing Big Thing,” featuring Tibbetts and Hanrahan. He directed both of them in SATE’s vampire drama, “Cuddles,” during the 2016-2017 season
Schwety also directs for other groups – next up in 2022 is “Every Brilliant Thing” for New Jewish Theatre.
This fruitful collaboration in “Tinsel Town” is an example of a dream team hitting all the beats well.
The Midnight Company presents “Tinsel Town” Dec. 2-18, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., including two Sunday matinee performances Dec. 5 and 12 at 2 p.m., at the .ZACK Theatre, 3224 Locust, St. Louis. For tickets, visit MetroTix.com. For more information, visit www.midnightcompany.com.
Photos by Joey Rumpell