Let's make a deal at Venice Theatre.
“Road to Nirvana” is taking hard-core theater fans on a journey at Venice Theatre. With a title like that, you might expect a live version of a Hope/Crosby road picture. Nope. The playwright is Arthur Kopit: the mind behind such mind-bending fare as “Indians,” and “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and Mom’s Feeling So Sad.” Kopit’s roads usually lead to savage and twisted destinations. Bad language, nudity, gross stuff. You have been warned.
This particular highway to hell begins with a Hollywood meeting. Jerry (Steve O’Dea) is a once-promising director. Thanks to a rare display of artistic integrity, Jerry fell from film industry grace and now grinds out infomercials about proper condom use. After a five-year silence, Al (Jeremy Guerrero), the producer who fired Jerry, cuckolded him for good measure (driving Jerry’s guilty wife to suicide), destroyed his reputation and kicked him out of Hollywood paradise, suddenly invites Jerry over to his house to hear a pitch. It looks like a typical So-Cal script conference — except for the sight of Al’s wife, Lou (Alison Prouty), who’s enjoying a topless sunbathing session as if Jerry didn’t exist. (Our first hint something’s deeply wrong.) Tense negotiation begins: a Mamet-esque mélange of fake sincerity and f-words. Al finally makes his offer — and it’s sweet.
Remember that “What Would you do for a Klondike Bar” commercial? Well, let’s bump that up a notch. What would you do, not for fleeting fame and money, but a chance to forever burn your name on the pages of future history books? A hundred years from now, people will say, “Jerry was somebody. He created something that lasts.” That sound good to you? Or would you prefer to be erased from human memory like a child’s drawing on an Etch-a-Sketch?
That’s Al’s dangled carrot for the washed-up Jerry. The power to green-light any project Jerry can imagine; and the eternal legacy that will result.
Nirvana (Vera Samuels) is the means to this everlasting end—not the Seattle grunge band, but a psychotic pop star clearly modeled after Madonna. She’s a so-so dancer, an OK singer, her body’s all right—but she pumps out a thousand-watt aura of charisma that drives her fans to their worshipful knees. This Nirvana will select a chosen few (namely us, baby!) to produce and direct her autobiographical film script: basically a rip-off of “Moby Dick” with Nirvana’s name substituted for Ahab’s and a certain male appendage standing in for, well, the Great White Whale. The resulting bio-pic might be dreck, but Nirvana’s mindless minions will swamp the box office, video rental, foreign and subsidiary and ancillary markets. We’ll be swimming in an ocean of cash! We can do anything we want! A green light for any project! Eternal fame, baby! And you, Jerry will get director’s credit. If you’re willing to pay the price.
The ante to buy into this game? Aw, just a little symbolic wrist slashing. OK. Done. Then Al ups the ante. This time, it’s edible, and we’re not talking Klondike Bar. The item on the menu? As some of you may be eating, I will refer you to Terry Southern’s “The Magic Christian.” Jerry passes this test, too. (I’m told this frequently happens in Hollywood. At least symbolically.)
Following this proof of loyalty, the trio meets Nirvana in her swanky digs. (Another great set by Brian Freeman.) She’s a piece of work, she is, all decked out in slinky, sexy Egyptian garb. (Kudos to Nicholas Hartman.) Some folks visit Crazytown, others live there. But Nirvana’s the queen. A narcissistic, coke-addicted, brain-damaged, whackadoodle with bipolar syndrome, borderline personality disorder, long-term memory loss, and Messianic delusions of being an Egyptian god-princess, although she knows her way around a soundboard. Obeying some voice in her head, Nirvana ups the ante one more time on poor Jerry. The Queen of Crazy demands a final sacrifice. Of certain male body parts. Once the snipping is done and her film complete, Jerry’s glorious ride will begin …
Quite a road, eh? But my skeletal summary skips the creepy, under-your-skin mood. Kopit’s play is essentially a character study, and the characters are all creeps.
Al is a rotten human being: a manipulator and a psychological thug. But you glimpse the good intentions that started his highway to hell. He talks Jerry into self-destruction with the language of personal growth. Al’s patois is the sweet ambrosia of Esalen gone bad: the language of group encounters and truth talk (intended for honesty and self-actualization) soured to the fascist mind games of est and Synanon.
To borrow a phrase from Bruce Springsteen, Lou sulks around like a dog that’s been beat too much. Turn your back, and she’ll bite. She circles in the background, waiting for her chance.
Jerry is broken, a shattered soul, its fragments caught and compacted in the gravity well of self-hatred — a tight ball of pain — but always on the hair’s edge of exploding in a killing spree at the wrong word or look.
Nirvana has that control-freak conviction of every self-appointed Messiah that her petulant whims and God’s will are the same thing. Star-quality, of the Charlie Manson variety. (And, with the right record deal, Charlie would’ve been a star.) Again, you see flashes of the nice kid she was before the damage set in.
Kelly Woodland makes these weirdos feel like real weirdos and their mock-Mamet dialog sound like real speech. (Which is tough to do, even with real Mamet. Rent the film version of “Oleanna” to see what I mean.) The actors who bring it all home are no less than amazing. (As Kopit points out in the after-talk, if a rotten human being plays a rotten character, it just won’t work.) An actor must have depth, empathy, and compassion to make you to care about characters who don’t. You’ve got to have soul to play a lost soul. O’Dea, Guerrero, Prouty and Samuels are great souls, indeed.
All this heavy talk about hell and the human soul shouldn’t obscure the knee-slapping hilarity of this thing. The play’s jokes are great. And a joke was its genesis…
Kopit’s 1989 play was born as a satire of David Mamet’s “Speed the Plow” — a Broadway embarrassment boasting the acting non-talents of Madonna herself. Kopit detected the sweet smell of sell-out in this enterprise. He spoofed it with this mockery of Mamet’s machine-gun fire dialogue and a caricature of Madonna (aka the Designer Clothes With No Empress) as its star. For good measure, he also poked the L.A. film scene in the eye with a heavy-handed thumb. (This play makes “Day of the Locust” look like “Hooray for Hollywood.”) But what you think you’re going to write and what you actually write are two different things. Somewhere along the line, Kopit’s satire took on a life of its own. His monstrous caricatures became simply monsters.
Al, Jerry, Lou and Nirvana are not the kind of folks you’d want to be alone with. The magic of theater puts these monsters a cage where you can safely watch them tear at each other. “Road to Nirvana” is an atrocity exhibition. Not the surreal eyeball slashing of “Un Chien Andalou” — avant-garde cruelty for cruelty’s sake with no connection to real life. Kopit’s satiric mirror is distorted, but it reflects reality. More than the f-bombs and gross-outs, that’s what so deeply disturbing.
Why look at these monsters? Why look at Richard III, Macbeth or any monster? So you’ll know what they look like, of course. And won’t let them eat you if they get the chance. Or make any deals with them.
A useful takeaway, but it’s not the point. Like any nightmare, Kopit’s “Road to Nirvana” is an unfolding organic unity, not a didactic lesson. It’s the road less traveled and not for the faint of heart. But it’s well worth taking.