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Review: Based on a Totally True Story at Water Tower Theatre


by Jerome Weeks 21 Apr 2009

Currently at the Water Tower Theatre, the comedy Based on a Totally True Story has an onstage narrator, a gay man named Ethan, who writes plays and comic books. Ethan relates how he met his domestic partner in New York and how he got into filmmaking in Los Angeles. In Hollywood-speak, the two men “meet cute.” And the play pretty much stays cute.

CTA TBD

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Andrew Phifer as Ethan and Barry Nash as his father in Based on a Totally True Story

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Currently at the Water Tower Theatre, the comedy Based on a Totally True Story has an onstage narrator, a gay man named Ethan, who writes plays and comic books. Ethan relates how he met his domestic partner in New York and how he got into filmmaking in Los Angeles. In Hollywood-speak, the two men “meet cute.”

And the play pretty much stays cute.

Based on a Totally True Story is based, however loosely or truthfully, on the life of playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who also writes screenplays and comic books. North Texas audiences may be familiar with his name. Last week, the Dallas Theater Center unveiled its next season, and one of the shows will be a new, revised version of the 1966 musical, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman. Aguirre-Sacasa is the writer who will be re-working it.

In Totally True Story, Ethan (Andrew Phifer), the comic book nerd, makes his living writing DC Comics’ second-tier but still classic superhero, The Flash. In fact, he meets Michael (Beau Trujillo), a Village Voice journalist, while he’s writing an installment in a coffee bar — quietly waving his arms and whispering dialogue to himself. They date, they drop a lot of inside-gay-New York references and they move in together. At the same time, one of Ethan’s plays gets picked up by Mary Ellen (Mary Anna Austin), a movie producer who thinks it can be a smart horror film, and Ethan’s dad (Barry Nash) reveals that he’s breaking up with Ethan’s mother. Complications, complications and the old personal-vs.-professional face-off with a gay update. Comic book nerds aren’t great at handling intimacy in personal relationships, so as all these pressures and seductions build up, Ethan and Michael begin to quarrel.

Totally True Story is crisply if a bit impersonally staged by director James Paul Lemons, his design team and cast. The play wants to ingratiate itself like a friendly puppy — a trait perfectly embodied by Phifer as Ethan — but it’s smart enough to be bittersweet, to let us know it’s aware of all those literary stories about Hollywood that have come before, notably F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. So while it takes predictable swipes at Los Angeles, no one is really a villain here — not even Mary Ellen, the pushy chatterbox of a producer.

It’s typical of Totally True Story and the Water Tower production that Mary Ellen has a personal moment with Ethan after he reveals a sexual dalliance with a handsome actor, a betrayal of Michael that’s troubling him. Mary Ellen consoles Ethan with the advice that her movie-producer mentor Monroe Stahr once gave her: Everyone in Hollywood is unfaithful because they’re all secretly married to the movies. Austin delivers this line — and Phifer accepts it — at face value, yet Monroe Stahr is, of course, fictional. He’s Fitzgerald’s last tycoon movie producer. It’s not a personal revelation on Mary Ellen’s part at all — it’s just another one of Aguirre-Sacasa’s literary and pop cultural quips and references.

These may give Totally True Story an appealing veneer of with-it-ness and literary semi-smarts (can’t be too smart, you’ll lose the audience), but quite a few of those references will age this comedy pretty quickly. The idea, for instance, that Ethan’s script needs to be rushedinto production to cash in on the fad for Asian horror films is already pretty much past its sell-by.

There used to be a fair number of likable but disposable stage comedies like Totally True Story — comedies made topical and given a frisson of progressive thinking by their embodiment of social changes like feminism (Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig) or gay struggles for acceptance (Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told). Once those social movements took hold, however, the plays lost a lot of their immediacy. That’s not why such plays have become rare, however: It’s because network sitcoms and cable TV shows got hipper and have taken over many of these same chores (and hired away many of the younger stage writers).

At the start of a Totally True Story, Aguirre-Sacasa has Ethan admit that his story is a slightly familiar one. Actually, the problem isn’t that his story is familiar. It’s that it’s barely ankle-deep.

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