Playwright Tawni O’Dell uses the same gag twice in her new play Pay the Writer at the Signature Center (the play is not a production of the Signature Theater Company, but is renting the space). African-American literary lion Cyrus Holt (a robust Ron Canada) twice stops himself after uttering an eloquent observation on life, says “That’s good,” and rushes to jot it down in a note book for future reference. The bit is supposed to reinforce the theme of writers living outside their authentic selves in order to observe the human condition and thereby alienating their family and friends. Hardly a novel topic, but a worthy one. The trouble is O’Dell makes the point twice and it’s one of too many themes and plotlines running through this confusing, occasionally entertaining work.
Pay the Writer doesn’t know which of many paths it wants to follow. Is it the story of Cyrus, nearing the end of his diminishing artistic powers as he is dying of cancer and reaching out to his estranged spouse and adult children? (He’s now on a third or fourth much younger, off-stage wife. I lost track of the exact number of his marriages.) Or is the play about Bruston Fischer (caustic Bryan Batt), Cyrus’ white, gay agent who narrates the play with direct and unnecessary addresses to audience and is in a snit because Cyrus has not shown him his latest and probably last novel?
At times, Bruston and Cyrus’ relationship appears to be the strongest plot thread. Then it fades and Cyrus and his family takes over. Then in yet another turn, it seems to be about the devastating effects of the Vietnam War wherein a young Cyrus served and subsequently penned a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the controversial conflict. Throughout, the plot is familiar with its tropes of the narcissistic artist attempting to mend fences as he faces the end of his days.
The plot twists are contrived and forced. The main action of the first half (there is no intermission, making for a long two-hour slog) has Bruston battling with Jean-Luc (effete and affected Steven Hauck), Cyrus’ snobbish French translator, over which gentleman is Cyrus’s most valued friend and supporter. Then in the second half, for reasons that aren’t explained, Cyrus moves from a palatial penthouse to the book-lined, crowded Village studio where he began his writing career. (The latter is set designer David Gallo’s only chance to display character-evoking, detailed work, otherwise the settings are minimal and suggestive). Bruston and Jean-Luc now take a back seat to Cyrus’ bitter ex-wife Lana (elegant but mannered Marcia Cross) and his two adult children with issues of their own (Garrett Turner who doubles as young Cyrus in a flashback and Danielle J. Summons). Turner and Summons manage to create credible characterizations amidst the script’s writerly cliches. The worst of these arrives near the end as Cyrus has an unbelievable encounter with a homeless man in Central Park (though Stephen Payne does an admirable job with this cameo role). No spoilers, but credulity-straining coincidence plays a heavy hand in their meeting.
Pay the Writer probably would have worked better as a short story or novella since there are so many story strands of which to keep track. Director Karen Carpenter tries her best to ties the threads together, but the she cannot hide the uneven quality of the work. The cast which also includes Miles G. Jackson as a young Bruston in that superfluous flashback, is also game, but there’s only so much they can do with this mediocre work. There are a few funny moments, mostly due to Bruston’s wisecracks. (By the way, what kind of first name is Bruston?) But, sadly, Pay the Writer, is too writerly for its own good.