It might share a name with a Woody Allen movie, but you can put that right out of your mind. Griffin Theatre’s last production for 2012 (from its independent program) has nothing to do with it. CJ Johnson’s Hollywood Ending is a product of the Rapid Write concept, in which a play goes from page to stage in eight weeks. It’s a wicked idea that started with London’s Theatre 503, who are co-presenters, alongside Griffin and Arts Radar. The director is Tim Roseman, who was co-artistic director of Theatre 503 before taking up his new post as artistic director of Playwriting Australia.
The rationale for the concept is, essentially, so that plays can be made responsively; which is to say, such that it addresses issues and events of the day. In a sense, it’s the theatrical equivalent of Twitter or Facebook.
This play is subtitled “How A Washed-Up Director Made A Crappy Movie That Almost Destroyed The World”, and that’s probably a better clue. Aussie porn director Don (Terry Serio) hasn’t had a job in a while, despite his involvement with such classics as “In Diana Jones” and “Glad He Ate Her”. He’s had a drinking problem, no long licked and kicked. And probably a few other substance abuse issues too, truth be told. But he’s cleaned up his act for a meeting with two first-time executive producers.
Here’s “double-denim” Don, looking stereotypically sleazy, with mo and vintage Ray-Bans. On his feet, cowboy boots. He hasn’t really moved with the times. His last active working period was in the ’70s and he still wears a relic of that era around his neck: a shark’s tooth. Nonetheless, he’s engaged in bitchin’ pitchin’ of his vision for the script to Randy (who wrote it) and Laura, who’s masterminding it. Early on, Randy (Blake Erickson) and Laura (Briallen Clarke) look and sound for all the world like cookie-cut, born-again Christians, given their patience, politeness and unbridled enthusiasm. (Randy’s hacked haircut may be cited as further evidence.) But more sinister and dubious aspects of their character and motives gradually come to the fore. An unsettling fact is that Randy lays claim to a large cache of guns. Laura soon shows herself, despite tender years, to be downright Machiavellian.
It’s described as “wildly untrue”, but that’s not, in itself, quite true. The fact is the play pivots around a comparably awful movie to the one Don’s supposedly making. In July of this year, the 14-minute “trailer” for an apparently non-existent film later called Innocence Of Muslims was uploaded to YouTube. Originally titled “The Real Life Of Muhammad and Muhammad Movie Trailer”, a few months later they were dubbed into Arabic. To add further confusion, posters advertised the movie as Innocence Of Bin Laden, but it’s original working title was Desert Warrior. But whatever you choose to call it, it was a scurrilously clandestine vehicle for anti-Islamic propaganda, which resulted in demonstrations throughout the Middle East and beyond. Outrage is one thing, but the collateral damage of protests has been hundreds of injuries and 75 deaths. Against this outcome, of course, is the sacrosanct ideal of freedom of expression which, to exist, must include the good, the bad, the ugly and the downright heinous. Johnson has clearly devised the piece such that he can open up this can of worms, but this serious underpinning doesn’t make itself felt for some time: around half the play is for laughs, which proves a devious dramatic strategy when the twist in the tale takes hold.
When it does, it’s quite gripping. All of a sudden, Don’s story becomes one of a late-bloomer, a man who is suddenly able to look past and deeper than his life of folly and frivolity have previously allowed. He has a kind of awakening of Jungian dimensions, becoming motivated to be a better man. Thus, having already endured a series of unreasonable compromises, he turns on his employers, becoming a principled interrogator of their motives. This is largely predicated by the stern counsel of Don’s daughter Amy (Caroline Craig), a sophisticated film school graduate. “You’re better than me,” Don confides, when he initially tries to inveigle Amy into crewing as his first AD, betraying a reverse-polarity parent-child relationship.
Under the guise of comedy, Johnson, with deft direction by Roseman and career-crowning performances from all the actors (including Tony Llewellyn-Jones as Don’s long-time line producer and friend Jerry), has cleverly managed to make quite a serious play, that manages to at least raise many questions about freedom of religion, freedom of expression, principles versus pragmatism (it was the proceeds from porn that educated Amy, affording her the opportunity to be high-and-mighty in a way Don could only dream about), love, loyalty, deceit and sacrifice. Rather than become embittered on realising he’s probably dashed his last hope of making a “real” film, Don musters the courage to make his daughter proud by doing something good, at great personal cost. So much for stereotypes.
Perhaps we could at least try and remember this when deriving our simplistic positions on whichever side of complex issues. There are few demons and martyrs. Mostly, like Jimmy Saville or, doubtless, countless other confounding examples throughout history, people tend to be some pro portion of both. Even Al Capone, even while causing a few, was a bleeding heart for charity.
Hollywood Ending looks unassuming, but proves surprisingly substantial. And reminds us the only place we’ll find one is Hollywood.
The details: Hollywood Ending plays Griffin’s SBW Stables Theatre until December 10. Tickets on the company website.