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Curtis Raymond Shideler, Bob Hess, Ben Phillips, and Jerry Downey hammer out artistic differences in Circle Theatre’s Don’t Talk to the Actors.

Oh, goody. Another play satirizing the world of the theatuh and the pretensions of the brilliant egomaniacs and thin-skinned artisans who inhabit it. If you’re going to tread this well-worn ground, you’d better bring something new to it. Tom Dudzick’s comedy is called Don’t Talk to the Actors after advice that’s given to its hero, who quickly finds that the actors spend so much time talking to him that he can barely get a word in regardless. It plays right now at Circle Theatre, and for all its efforts at merriment, it resoundingly fails in this department. In doing so it criminally wastes the efforts of a very fine cast.

The entire play takes place in a dingy rehearsal room in midtown Manhattan. The action centers around Jerry Przpezniak (Curtis Raymond Shideler), a young playwright whose last name keeps getting butchered by everyone who first meets him in one running gag. His first play, an autobiographical piece with only two characters, is being produced on Broadway, and he has thrown everything over and made the move to the Big Apple with his schoolteacher wife Arlene (Meg Shideler). However, his maiden effort threatens to be hijacked by lead actor Curt Logan (Bob Hess), a faded TV star who keeps asking for rewrites that give him more speeches and more histrionics. Even though Jerry’s play is deeply personal — another running gag has everyone he meets holding up his play and saying, “These are my parents!” — the pressure of the big time has him doubting his own creation.

Jerry is obviously a stand-in for Dudzick, a Buffalo native of Polish descent like his hero. This play is based on his experiences with his first play Greetings!, which starred Darren McGavin of TV and film. The trouble is that he thinks that actors sucking all the oxygen out of the room is in and of itself funny. He’s wrong. It isn’t funny. It’s just overbearing. Curt’s schemes to make the play into his own personal showcase are so transparent that Jerry and Arlene look like fools for not seeing through it, and the whole gambit with Curt trying to seduce Arlene feels completely wrong. The wit here is ersatz. An average episode of a decent TV drama will leave you with more memorable one-liners than this comedy does. Director Harry Parker does his best with these and keeps this play moving at a reasonable clip, but he can’t conjure laughs out of the thin air that Dudzick’s material gives him.

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Nor can he do much with the set pieces where everyone sits and watches one of the actors monopolize everybody’s attention. Among the actors, Ben Phillips stands out as the play’s director, a down-to-Earth Chicagoan who serves as an island of sanity amid the gale force of actorly ego blowing around him. There’s a terrific scene as he tries to motivate lead actress Beatrice Pomeroy (Wendy Welch), a nightclub comic and singer who keeps trying to insert jokes and songs into the play because she’s scared that she can’t do the heavy drama that the play calls for. This character arc and its resolution has more force than the storyline with Curt, which takes up far more space in the drama.

This comedy is perversely at its best when it’s not trying to be funny, as in a nearly tossed-off bit in the middle of the second act when the persnickety stage director (Jerry Downey) acrimoniously breaks up with his boyfriend over the phone because he’s too devoted to his work. That bit with a two-dimensional minor character suddenly popping into three dimensions unfortunately illustrates what’s wrong with the rest of the play. Don’t Talk to the Actors is so busy going after big laughs that aren’t there that it doesn’t have enough of these smaller, meaningful moments. Just like Curt Logan, it’s loud and brash and thinks it’s funnier than it is.

[box_info]Don’t Talk to the Actors
Thru Jul 16. Circle Theatre,
230 W 4th St, FW. $15-38.
817-877-3040.[/box_info]

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