Saturday, March 5, 2011

Diversionary’s Fair Use: A Screwball Comedy for Today


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In the 1930’s the Hollywood studios pioneered a new type of movie comedy that came to be called “screwball.” Before that, film comedy had been the province of specialists — Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd in the silent era; Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields in the early years of sound — people who looked and acted funny and played such stylized characters it was impossible to imagine them as actors playing regular roles. Screwball democratized movie comedy; it was a style actors otherwise known for serious drama could play, and instead of slapstick and elaborate comic action it got most of its laughs from outrageous but still recognizably human situations and witty repartée.

Sarah Gubbins’ Fair Use, playing through March 13 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights, is a play that’s essentially screwball comedy for the 21st century. Basically it’s two plays in one, with plot lines that intersect. Don (Stephen Schmitz) is a writer whose latest novel was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize — only another writer, known for cheap spy thrillers, is suing him for plagiarism, claiming that Don’s critically acclaimed book was lifted from an unpublished memoir of his which Don allegedly read in his capacity as an editor at a publishing house.

The other is a Bisexual love triangle involving three of the attorneys representing Don. Sy (Amanda Sitton) is — at least as far as she lets on — 100 percent Lesbian and has an intense crush on Madi (Jacque Wilke), whom she necked with at a party the night before the play opens. Madi is an outside attorney the firm has brought on because she’s a specialist in copyright law. Sy’s partner Chris (Wyatt Ellison) has the hots for Madi, too, and in order to press his suit he grabs hold of a love letter Sy has written Madi and passes it off as his. Either out of some twisted sense of loyalty to her law partner or in hopes that somehow this will make Madi — who insists she’s never had sex with a woman in her life — come to her in the end, Sy continues to ghost-write Madi letters under Chris’s name.

The gimmick is that just as Madi and the firm’s literary consultant, Bec (Wendy Maples) — a butch Lesbian who had a brief affair with Sy years before; the two parted as lovers but, like the late Jane Chambers’ Lesbian characters, have remained friends since — hit on an idea for a successful defense of Don’s suit, playwright Gubbins is unashamedly using the same gimmick. Their defense will be that both Don and the person suing him used bits of Melville, Faulkner and other writers in the public domain. It’s an argument which pisses off Don no end — it makes it seem like nothing in his book is original, that it’s all been compiled from other sources — but closely follows Gubbins’ own strategy.

Diversionary’s program cops to the “echoes of Cyrano de Bergerac” in the script, and Edmond Rostand, the 19th century French playwright who wrote Cyrano, may well have been ripping off The Courtship of Miles Standish — whose author, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, may have been stealing from someone else, and on back the borrowings can be traced, probably to a cuneiform tablet on the outskirts of ancient Babylon or even farther to a cave drawing at Lascaux. While the copyright case at the heart of Fair Use seems more 20th than 21st century — a playwright who really wanted to be au courant would probably have made Don a hotshot computer programmer fighting off a Microsoft-like giant who claimed underlying copyright, patent or trademark rights to some basic Internet search procedure — it makes for a charming premise for a comedy.

It’s also well performed by Diversionary’s crew. Director James Vasquez keeps it fast-paced the way a comedy should be. Set designer Matt Scott and props person David Medina give us a utilitarian office whose only connection to a more romantic past is the 1930’s-era typewriter Sy writes the love notes on (she has a laptop computer on her desk, too, but seemingly uses it only for work). The play is nominally set in Chicago, Gubbins’ home town (where it was premiered in 2008 by Steppenwolf Theatre), though it could take place in just about any major U.S. city, and there are no painted or projected backdrops to give it a sense of place. It’s effectively lit by Michelle Caron and costumed by Jeannie Galioto, though this is not a particularly challenging script in the technical departments.

Where Diversionary’s Fair Use shines is in its cast. Amanda Sitton dominates the stage as Sy, really the central character; she’s tall, leggy, sexy and manages to play a Lesbian who can’t be characterized as either butch or femme. She’s slender and small-chested but there’s utterly nothing boyish about her. Sitton uses her body effectively to project a surface energy and drive that masks an acute degree of personal frustration. Playing a less challenging character, Wyatt Ellison does a good job of projecting a man who’s far more accustomed to using women than loving one. Wendy Maples, who rolls up her sleeve, enlists Sy’s help in repairing a bike for one of her other girlfriends and asserts herself by smoking in the no-smoking office, seems to have dropped in from another play altogether but adds a welcome streak of broadness to the play’s humor.

Next to Sitton, the best actor in the cast is Stephen Schmitz, who looks properly hang-dog and is especially effective when he reacts to his attorneys’ decision that the only way they can get the court to find him innocent of illegal plagiarism is to find him guilty of legal plagiarism. He does overdo the emotional basket-case stuff a little, though; even given the conventions of how real writers have fictional writers behave, one still has a hard time believing that someone so clueless in his own emotional life could write a book (no matter the source of its plot) so many readers had cherished as a rare insight into human feelings and affections.

Jacque Wilke’s Madi is the one problematic member of the cast. She looks like Reese Witherspoon’s Legally Blonde character 20 years later and gone decidedly to seed. Galioto’s costume and the uncredited makeup artist have made her look too much like a bimbo, and one has a hard time understanding both why Sy and Chris think she’s the attorney who’s going to save their case and why they both want to have sex with her. Wilke is a talented enough actress that she overcomes the handicaps and makes the character believable, but one still gets the impression that the root of Sy’s emotional frustrations isn’t being a Lesbian but having absolutely rotten taste in who she wants to be Lesbian with.

Still, a characterization that would be pushing the bounds of risibility in a serious drama is acceptable in a play that’s supposed to be funny, and while the ending of Fair Use is a bit pat and predictable (if you haven’t guessed how it’s going to turn out well before the intermission, you’ve seen precious few plays or movies lately), that was often true of the 1930’s screwball comedies on which it was modeled. Fair Use is a charming comedy and a good start to Diversionary Theatre’s current season — and it’s a real pity they’re only running it for three weeks.

Fair Use is playing through Sunday, March 13 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., with a special performance Monday, March 7 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and other information, please call (619) 220-0087 or visit