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Mitch Albom’s show-biz-sin-and-redemption parable And the Winner Is…, currently on view at the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre in a brisk co-production by Actors Comedy Lab and Raleigh Little Theatre, has been directed with enormous zest and variety by Bunny Safron and is performed by a game cast of comedians. It is, alas, a glib collection of one-liners and pseudo-profundities that are to wit what Two and a Half Men is to Private Lives and to philosophy as Nietzsche to a Ziggy comic.
A self-regarding movie actor, who goes by the improbable name, chosen by his agent, of Tyler Johnes — the “H,” we are winkingly told, is silent — dies and finds himself in a sort of Heavenly vestibule, presided over by an Irish barkeep called Seamus, quick on the draw with a finger-operated clicker whenever one of the newly dead takes the Lord’s name in vain. Up for a Supporting Actor Oscar, Tyler (Scott Nagel) convinces Seamus (Tony Hefner) to allow him to return to life for the night, alternatively abetted and frustrated by his agent, Teddy LaPetite (Tim Corbett); Kyle Morgan (Colin McNaughton), his co-star in a series of action flicks conceived by Albom, in would-be uproarious mode, as “Chippencops” (you can just imagine); his girl-of-the-moment Serenity (Sarah Bousquet); and his decent, caring and, naturally, misunderstood soon-to-be-ex-wife Sheri (Staci Sabarsky).
Albom’s script concerns itself on the one hand with swatting at as many Hollywood targets as possible — puffed-up movie-star egos, avaricious toadying, buddy movies, self-regarding awards shows, even independent film, for which you might be excused thinking the author might have some respect — and on the other with spiritual uplift and reliable Judeo-Christian tropes involving the afterlife, both explicated in such a twee and condescending manner that the single sin likely to take you out of the line for celestial ascendancy is an adult failure to say, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” before retiring. Since most of us, quite understandably, hung that one up along with our last pair of footie pajamas, in Albom’s eyes we are presumably doomed to some sort of prolonged, libationless Gehenna. Well, I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.
The synthetic quality of And the Winner Is… can be gleaned from its very title. It’s been years since presenters at the Oscars used that phrase. The words those opening the Price & Waterhouse-guaranteed envelopes now routinely intone, however (“And the Oscar goes to…”) would clearly not suit Albom’s purpose, which is to show us all how shallow our worldly ambitions are and to point the way to other, more soulful, pursuits. But what, exactly, is wrong with ambition? Like “elitism,” the very word has become yet another stick with which to beat the individuality and progressivism out of us — to assure the indolent and self-satisfied among us that the desire to accomplish and excel is a dirty personal habit to be quashed at all costs. And this, from the multi-millionaire author of the unstoppable and ubiquitous Tuesdays with Morrie!
It’s no accident, then, that “Tyler Johnes” is a thoroughly unpleasant caricature, nor that the rest of his entourage of sycophants and rivals prove scarcely less repellant, with only Sheri to represent the Higher State of Existence, one unconcerned with such soulless appointments as fame, money, or achievement. That Tyler is palatable at all is a tribute to Scott Nagel’s flamboyant, arch, yet somehow boyishly likeable performance. The others fare better than the material might suggest: Tony Hefner’s Seamus manages the not inconsiderable feat of making this sub-Saint Peter more sprite than martinet, while Colin McNaughton and Sarah Bousquet likewise downplay the less savory aspects of Kyle and Serenity. Tim Corbett’s French accent as the oily agent Teddy is variable, but he makes a striking presence in a thankless role, as does Staci Sabarsky, who almost convinces you that Sheri is actually human rather than a limp dramaturgical construct.
Praise is also due Mark Peelman for his clever set designs; to Casey Watkins, whose costumes include, for Teddy, a tuxedo set off by a paisley tie and cummerbund and a pair of wonderfully incongruous red socks; and to the effective sound design of Rod Rich, Mark Peelman, and Todd Houseknecht. That And the Winner Is… hums along at such a zippy pace, and with such pleasing visual élan, is attributable largely to the indefatigable inventiveness of Bunny Safron’s nimble direction, abetted by her consultant, the redoubtable John T. “Jack” Hall.
Mitch Albom, however, is the sort of playwright who can send you into the night taking the names of any number of deities in vain — Seamus and his clicker be damned.
The show runs through September 26 at RLT's Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre on Pogue Street in Raleigh. For details, see our calendar.