Amid an ongoing strike by Hollywood screenwriters and actors, a play with the nifty title “Pay the Writer” courts applause before anyone has uttered a word. Never mind that its turf is mainly the literary world, not the cinematic one; the author at the center of Tawni O’Dell’s play, Cyrus Holt (Ron Canada), seems to speak for all underpaid writers when he inscribes that feisty injunction in a copy of his book that is being adapted as a movie.
Holt’s agent, Bruston Fischer (Bryan Batt), has the thankless job of acting as the go-between for his client and the film producer, who has not paid anything more than a small advance. Despite its thunderbolt of a title, the real focus of this elegiac memory play is on the relationship between Holt and Fischer: one an ailing, thrice-divorced author, the other his confidant, therapist and enabler.
Under Karen Carpenter’s brisk direction, the play darts back and forth between present-day New York City and Holt’s Lothario days in the East Village, Paris and Los Angeles some 40 years earlier. When we first meet him, Holt is ensconced in penthouse luxury, anxiously waiting word from his French translator Jean Luc (Steven Hauck) about his new manuscript. He is now “the Black author on every American Lit syllabus kids try to avoid reading,” as he wryly puts it.
But before he became a star in the literary firmament, Holt was a struggling author. As a portrait of the artist as a young man, the play is contractually required to mention a Big Bang moment. That moment arrives in a funny, if slightly overwritten scene when the younger versions of Holt (Garrett Turner) and Fischer (Miles G. Jackson), then working as a junior editor, meet outside a publishing house. They trade opinions on the relative merits of Tolstoy and Richard Wright before Holt gives Fischer a copy of his manuscript. A beatific expression washes over Jackson’s line-free face as he reads aloud excerpts, but the tin-eared prose made me yearn for Keats’s “unheard melodies.” Holt’s novel, about a mother who kills her child, owes too much to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” — and suffers by comparison.
Although its snide, knowing remarks about the cutthroat publishing world occasionally impart the fizzy pleasure of the television show “Call My Agent!,” the dialogue is blunted by cliché and frequently bogged down with exposition. Multiple characters remind Holt, with implausible regularity, about his National Book Awards, his Pulitzer and best sellers; scenes with his estranged son, Leo (Garrett Turner, giving a sensitively etched performance), are built on the creaky foundations of “Do you remember? Of course you don’t” repeated over and over.
Other characters, including Holt’s standoffish, runway-ready daughter, Gigi, (Danielle Summons), his equally glamorous wife, Lana (Marcia Cross), and the subtle-as-a-heart-attack Jean Luc, are given one-dimensional roles as mild antagonists or the collateral damage of a colossal career. These people all paid a price for putting up with a supremely self-involved author, and it’s not clear if it was ultimately worth it for them — or for us.
Pay The Writer
Through Sept. 30 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; paythewriterplay.com. Running time: 2 hours.
This review is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in the work of cultural critics from historically underrepresented backgrounds.
POST AUTHOR: Rhoda Feng